At least 120 inmates locked up in Wayne County for 18 or more months without trial, conviction
“Does not live here.” Those words are scrawled across a manila envelope that Deidra Washington mailed to a friend who has been held in pre-trial detention in Wayne County, only to have it returned to sender. The papers inside the envelope crinkle in her grip. “It has been returned as Anthony Childs does not live at the Wayne County Jail. But that's where he's incarcerated at.”
Standing in a living room lined with faux fur rugs and glossy house plants, Washington can’t help but scoff. Childs used to share her Detroit home, but he has “lived” in jail since he was arrested in October 2019.
At least 120 people have been held in pre-trial detention in a Wayne County jail for more than 18 months during the pandemic as of the end of January, according to publicly available data analyzed by Michigan Radio.
Significant efforts were made to reduce the jail population in Michigan’s most populous county immediately following the outbreak of COVID-19. Court officials moved to dismiss low-level offenses or send inmates home with electronic monitors to try and prevent the virus from spreading from cell to cell. Friends, family, and advocacy organizations collected funds to bail out as many people as possible. Just seven weeks after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Michigan, the Wayne County jail system housed nearly 40% fewer inmates than it had prior to the pandemic.
Childs, who faces a serious charge, hasn’t been able to pay the $75,000 bond. And so, he’s spent the last two years in Division II, a nearly century-old facility referred to as the “Old Jail.”
“The county jail is not meant for long-time incarceration,” Childs said in a phone interview from jail. “There’s nothing but bars and a hallway, that’s it.” For those who have been sentenced to a state prison term, he added, there are typically more educational and recreational opportunities available.
Such extended periods of time in jail are rare when courts are not faced with pandemic challenges. Across the state, most people spend less than a day in jail, according to a January 2020 study by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, with an average of 45 days for those charged with felonies. (The average includes both those in pre-trial detention and those serving a sentence in a county jail).
“It's stressful, just like my mind is, like, racing constantly. I'm worried about my case,” Childs said. He’s also worried about family members who he hasn’t been able to see in person since the pandemic began, including his three children and his mother.
“I lost my father when I was in prison. I wasn't able to go to his funeral,” Childs said. “So I’m not trying to go through that with my mother. I know it's hard on her, me being in here.”
The pandemic has been a time of uncertainty for many, but only more so for Childs, who has dealt with concerns about the virus in jail and seen his case delayed by court closures and jammed dockets. “It's like they're just sitting there,” said Childs’ friend Diedre Washington. “They're not having court. They're not getting their day in court.
As of this month, about 6,000 criminal cases are pending before Wayne County’s Third Circuit Court. In normal circumstances, that number would be around 1,500. Chief Judge Timothy Kenny said pandemic challenges – from social distancing during jury trials to short-staffing among courtroom clerks – have delayed proceedings.
“It is extraordinarily frustrating,” he said. “We have had cases that have been scheduled to go to trial involving defendants who have been in custody and then some key witness or party ends up getting COVID.”
Courts across the state are facing extensive backlogs. Some have adapted. In order to mitigate the spread of COVID, St. Clair County began using a radio transmitter to select jurors and completed its first jury trial of the pandemic in June 2021. Charlevoix County held jury selection in an elementary school to allow for more distancing between potential jurors. A Traverse City gymnasium has been used to hold court in Grand Traverse County, and Saginaw County began to use a convention center for jury trials in March 2021.
But Wayne County hasn’t taken those steps. A plan to use Detroit’s convention center for jury selection was being kicked around, but Kenny says it’s now “on pause” because of funding issues.
Kenny said several factors have slowed the pace of justice for those who have spent the longest period of time in jail during the pandemic. Competency hearings, motions to adjourn, or the withdrawal of an attorney can all set back jury trials, but overall, cases moved through the Wayne County court system at a faster clip before the pandemic.
While people are entitled to a speedy trial in Michigan, it’s up to courts to determine whether the right has been violated and if defendants are fit to be released from jail.
“Right now, Michigan has a speedy trial statute, but it doesn't have any specific time guidelines that bind courts,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. “In other states where there's a specific statute that says after a certain number of days for a misdemeanor and a certain number of days for a felony, if somebody is still incarcerated and they haven't been brought to trial, they must be released.”
Abill in the Michigan Legislature would put the onus on courts to ensure trials take place within 18 months, following a recommendation from the bi-partisan Jail Task Force, which McCormack co-chairs. The bill wouldn’t require release for people whose speedy trial rights have been violated, however, and it also lists several exceptions that courts can cite to justify delays. One of them is a pandemic.
The jammed court docket has meant that individual attorneys are tasked with far more cases than they would otherwise litigate.
“I have prosecutors that are carrying in the trial court over 100 cases a piece. They shouldn't even have 20 a piece,” said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
With so many criminal cases pending before the court in Wayne County, defense attorneys have also been stretched thin.
Michigan Radio spoke to several people in jail in Wayne County for this story. All of them expressed concern about the quality of their legal representation.
Delays can have an impact on cases. Witnesses can change their minds about testifying and evidence can go missing. Additionally, said longtime Detroit-area criminal defense attorney Bill Goodman, “people's health deteriorates, especially their mental health deteriorates, so that whether they are able to assist as they would have been in their defense becomes problematic. And their attorneys are unable to get the kind of justice or results that sometimes are required in these situations.”
Some of the cases before the court originated in 2018. According to the analysis by Michigan Radio, the person who has spent the longest amount of time in pre-trial detention in a Wayne County jail has been there for just short of four years.
“I think it should shock the conscience that anyone could sit in jail during a pandemic for that length of time,” said Erin Keith, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, a non-profit legal organization that was part of a lawsuit calling for the immediate release of medically vulnerable individuals and improved public health conditions in the early months of the pandemic.
Keith notes that time in jail can be considered “time served” off of a prison sentence for people who are found guilty. But, for those who are found not guilty, that time is simply lost. “People should not be forced to be away from their families and away from their communities, potentially lose their job, potentially lose custody of their children, lose their homes merely for being accused of a crime, and I can’t overstate that word ‘accused.’”
Anthony Childs, who has been in pre-trial detention since 2019, says he misses the life he used to have in the house he shared with Deidra Washington. His youngest daughter would come over and he would do her hair. He played video games with his oldest daughter and football with his son.
He first met Washington at one of the backyard barbecues she regularly hosts, and said he’s already thinking about what he wants his friend to cook up for him when he’s home.
“Ribs, lasagna, and macaroni and cheese,” he said to her in a recent phone call from jail. She repeated the list, taking a mental note.
Childs’ next court appearance is set for April. He believes he’ll be found innocent.
This is the first in a two part series looking at the Wayne County Jail. Next time, we look at the jail’s long-standing health and safety issues - and how it’s handled COVID-19.