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Judges, commissioners confer on future criminal justice needs

Rebecca Pierce


Barry County judges and county commissioners told each other they agree on the need for new jail.

But proposed changes ahead for the state's criminal justice system could have an impact on a county jail project, the judges said.

And that’s what brought judges and commissioners together Tuesday afternoon in the jury room at the courthouse.

Three commissioners – Heather Wing, Vivian Conner and Jon Smelker – met with Chief Judge William Doherty and judges Michael Schipper and Vicky Alspaugh, Court Administrator Ines Straube, County Administrator Michael Brown and Sheriff Dar Leaf.

“I’d like one crystal ball to look in, not two or three, and it’s not going to happen,” Smelker said to the group. “It’s going to be the best educated guess we can get.

“I think we’re all in agreement we need a new jail. “

“No disagreement that the facility is rotting,” Doherty said.

Since county officials are in agreement on the need for a jail, location and size are the next questions, Smelker said.

Schipper, who has been handling most of the sentencings in the county’s criminal cases, has said impending bail/bond reform would likely reduce jail population.

He estimated that, once the reforms are enacted, the county jail population would typically be at around 50 inmates. That's about 25 to 30 fewer inmates than are being housed now.

But some proposals offered for consideration by the county's hired facilitator, TowerPinkster, envisioned a facility that would house more than 100 inmates.

The judges suggested impending statewide reforms be taken into consideration in the county's plan.

During the meeting, Wing praised the county’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

“The county does a fantastic job in sentencing,” she said. “I don’t know how much more drastic changes can be made.”

But Schipper said that, even in drunken-driving arrests, the courts may not have the discretion to hold defendants in some cases.

“We’re going to be able to hold them until they’re sober,” he said. “Then we’re probably going to have to let them go.”

One of the reasons for these proposed reforms is the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which was created by an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last spring to study Michigan’s jail system and recommend how to improve it.

In the order, Whitmer referenced research that indicates incarceration, in many cases, doesn’t increase public safety and can sometimes worsen it by exacerbating inmates’ mental health problems and uprooting them from jobs and communities.

Whitmer directed the task force to seek out jail alternatives and safely reduce jail admissions, lengths of stay and costs as it aligns with research.

The nonpartisan, Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts worked with the group to collect and analyze local jail data to inform the recommendations, along with public testimony from across the state.

Schipper said he doesn't disagree with some the reforms, but there are areas where Michigan laws are weak – some of the weakest in the nation.

When it comes to incarceration, “everything’s going down,” he said. And that means fewer inmates in jails.

Creative sentences and time served on weekends to allow people to keep their jobs also have an impact on the jail population.

Leaf pointed to other unexpected factors that could affect jail population, causing it to increase – such as growth in the county.

One new manufacturing plant is all it would take, he said.

After the meeting Tuesday afternoon, Leaf said comments suggesting a smaller jail were a “gut punch” for his staff.

Conner said she had no comment.




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