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Since this report was written, the world has changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic has spread rapidly across the country, the importance of reducing the population of local jails has been heightened. Jails are unique incubators for viral spread, as the people incarcerated in them are unable to engage in social distancing and usually lack access to preventative measures like hand sanitizer, masks, or handwashing. Jails also have the potential to become significant vectors for the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Wayne County—and especially Detroit—have been hit hard by COVID-19. Responding to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the Wayne County Jail, stakeholders have engaged in extensive efforts to reduce the jail population. As a result of these efforts, the Wayne County Jail has seen a remarkable decrease in its population, dropping from 1,410 people at the end of February to 876 on April 28, a reduction of almost 38 percent.[]Vera Institute of Justice, “COVID-19 and Criminal Justice: City Spotlights – Detroit,” https://www.vera.org/covid-19/.... With this sharp drop in the population of the Wayne County Jail, the landscape has changed significantly from the pre-pandemic analysis laid out in this report. We believe, however, that the analysis and recommendations contained in this report can still be useful to Wayne County as it looks to the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought devastation and tragedy. However, it has also shown us that significant jail decarceration is possible within an extremely short period of time. Wayne County, like other jurisdictions across the country, has an opportunity to learn from the experience of rapid decarceration and reconceptualize how its jail will be used when the immediate crisis of the pandemic passes, and regular life begins to resume.

This report presents findings and recommendations from the Vera Institute of Justice’s (Vera’s) study of the Wayne County Jail and the policies and practices of the local justice system that affect who is admitted to jail and how long they stay. The study was completed for a newly constituted Wayne County Jail Population Study Working Group, chaired by the chief judge of the Third Circuit Court, Timothy Kenny, and funded by the Hudson-Webber Foundation.[]The Wayne County Jail Population Study Working Group first convened in April 2019 and includes many of the people who have been actively working to improve the operation of the justice system and the jail. Over the course of 2019, Vera’s team analyzed five years of administrative data from the Wayne County Jail and collected qualitative data on policies and practices from stakeholders inside and outside of the local justice system. Vera also met with community members in Detroit who have direct experience with the local justice system and advocates who have been working for years to make their communities safer and healthier. This study comes at an important moment, as Wayne County (Michigan) is on the verge of constructing the Wayne County Criminal Justice Center, a new jail and juvenile detention complex, with the goal of resolving longstanding problems in existing facilities.

For almost 50 years, the Wayne County Jail has been the subject of a lawsuit brought on behalf of people held at the jail, Wayne County Jail Inmates v. Wayne County Sheriff, challenging conditions and overcrowding. When the suit was brought in 1971, the jail consisted of one facility built in 1929. Over the years, as the sheriff’s office was challenged to improve conditions and reduce overcrowding, two additional facilities were built with the hope of solving these problems and ending the suit, without success. The Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility was built in 1984, but double-celling was instituted shortly thereafter, with many of the same violations that existed previously; the William Dickerson Detention Facility was added in 1991. Third Circuit Court oversight has continued to the present day. Through more recent consent orders in this case, the court has sought to address overcrowding by setting an “effective capacity” for the three jail facilities. Many of these efforts have achieved results, and the population of the Wayne County Jail has been steadily decreasing since 2014.[]The average daily population (ADP) for July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019 (the study period for this report) was 1,701, which is approximately 25 percent lower than the same period in 2014 through 2015. These ADP figures are based on the jail data the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office provided to Vera. They differ from the numbers reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics because the bureau’s Annual Survey of Jails data did not include all the Wayne County Jail facilities.

The new Wayne County Criminal Justice Center is projected to house a 2,280-bed jail, the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office, a criminal courthouse, and a juvenile detention facility. Community members have raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the process and that building a new jail will unnecessarily expand the use of incarceration and reverse the steady decline of the jail population, especially if the population cap is lifted.

Given the history of jail expansion in Wayne County and the failure of prior jail construction to solve the population and conditions issues, the Wayne County Jail Population Study Working Group has taken an important step in developing long-term solutions that respond to the drivers—not just the effects—of jail population growth. Moreover, this study is taking place in the context of a statewide effort to improve the administration of justice and the overuse of local jails.

The findings highlight that there are many opportunities to further reduce the jail population and support the county’s interest in safety and fairness. The recommendations focus on decisions that are made at the local level by county officials, police, judicial leadership and judges in the district and circuit courts, prosecutors, and others. We believe there is significant potential for change in these areas that can further reduce the jail population and improve the efficacy and equity of Wayne County’s criminal justice system.

Read Vera's full report. For consistency, figures in this special digital report are numbered to correspond to those in the print report and are not sequential.