Detroit court to reduce jailing for low-level offenses in area

Chief Judge William McConico of the 36th District Court in Detroit recently announced a settlement agreement that will significantly reduce setting cash bail for low-level offenses. The change is part of a set of reforms that he hopes will become a model approach for the state and nation.

“We view this as an opportunity to create a fairer system,” Chief Judge McConico explained. “Individuals were being jailed while awaiting a 36th District Court hearing on routine traffic offenses because they couldn’t post bail. So, they were being punished without being found guilty.”

In addition to reducing the number of instances where cash bail is imposed, the agreement provides for other remedies: bail redetermination hearings; counsel for defendants at arraignment; and training of appointed defense lawyers regarding bail issues. Under the agreement, former U.S. Attorney Saul Green will serve as an independent community partner who will monitor progress and ensure accountability. 

“Too many individuals are jailed while awaiting a hearing simply because they can’t afford to make bail, and that’s not what should guide those outcomes,” McConico said. “This agreement instead allows bail decisions to be based on a case-by-case basis, judicial discretion, and whether the individuals pose a flight risk or are a danger to the public.”

McConico, along with Judge Larry Williams, have worked in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the law firm Covington & Burling, The Bail Project, and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund over the last three years to develop the agreement, which came after the ACLU sued the court. 

A 2021 study by the Michigan League on Public Policy found that, of the people in jail on a given day, half were awaiting court dates, having not been convicted of a crime. Having to pay cash in order to avoid jail while awaiting a court ruling disproportionately impacts those who are economically disadvantaged, particularly persons of color and women, other studies have shown.

A federal study of bail reform enacted in Houston and Harris County, Texas, showed misdemeanor cases declined from 62,000 filed in 2015 to 49,828 in 2021 — a drop of nearly 20 percent.

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pre-trial Incarceration, with help from Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted a 10-year review that showed many people who were held in Michigan jails awaiting trial or serving sentences for low-level offenses posed little public safety threat, yet stayed in jail a month or longer. That incarceration cost Michigan counties nearly half a billion dollars each year. The state Legislature last year enacted 20 reform bills to reduce jail populations and to help people avoid being locked up for low-level offenses.