Why Are the Jail Cells Empty?

Jeff Gerritt, Detroit Free Press, May 28, 2009

Empty jail cells are normally something to celebrate, but Wayne County’s top law enforcement officials say the hundreds of vacant jail beds are not because of a drop in crime or more reasonable sentencing. Floors of the downtown Detroit jail are empty because police are arresting fewer people accused of those crimes.

Altogether, three county jails that held about 2,500 prisoners a year ago now house 400 fewer inmates.

Sheriff Warren Evans said police are so slow to respond to some calls that the crimes never get reported. Prosecutor Kym Worthy was more blunt:

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Detroit has lost hundreds of sworn officers in recent years. The Police Department didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews with its top leaders, but it released preliminary statistics showing an overall decline in criminal activity this year, despite a 24% increase in homicides.

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Empty cells point to police breakdown

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The seventh floor of the Baird Detention Facility, normally home to 128 newly arrested prisoners, is vacant. So are the ninth floor and half of the 12th floor. Another 128 beds at the Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck are also closed. That adds up to more than 400 empty beds in Wayne County jails that, up to about a year ago, were filled with roughly 2,500 prisoners.

The main explanation is simple, according to the county’s top two law enforcement officials: Detroit police are making fewer arrests, a dereliction so obvious it has led some Detroiters to conclude there’s no point in even calling the cops.

“I’ve talked to dozens, probably hundreds, of people in the community who are telling me they never made a report because the police never came,” Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans said Tuesday. “The delay in response time is such that many, many, many crimes don’t get reported.”

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“We tell the press that crime is going down,” Worthy [Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy] said. “It’s not going down; it’s going up, exponentially, and we have many fewer officers on the street. We need to acknowledge the problem.”

The Detroit Police Department did not respond to several requests for comment last week. Instead, a department spokeswoman, citing preliminary police statistics, said overall crime in the city so far this year is down 9.1%, excluding a 24% increase in homicides–a trend that, if true, would partly explain the jail’s decreasing census, especially for those awaiting trial.

In 2007, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department recorded 20,423 felony bookings. Last year, there were just 18,261–a drop of more than 10% in a single year. So far this year, bookings have continued to drop roughly 10%, said Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes.

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Neither Oakland nor Macomb Counties report comparable declines in their own jail populations. Both counties’ cells remain full, despite innovative efforts to manage the population, Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel and Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe say.

Pontiac, however, is experiencing a trend similar to Detroit’s: Arrests have declined as the number of sworn officers has dropped from 170 to 65 in the last three years.

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Even serious crimes aren’t getting solved. Arrests are made in only 37% of Detroit homicides, compared to more than 60% nationwide. Officers have too little time to investigate, and they work with a community that often does not trust them. Detroit’s shuttered police crime lab has raised more troubling questions about homicide investigations.

Another reason arrests are down is the closing–for good cause–of many decrepit, pre-arraignment holding cells under a federal consent decree that is mandating reforms. Six years ago, police held 350 in such lockups, compared to about 130 today. Shift supervisors, and probably officers, know when the lockups are full.

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Privately, some law enforcement officials also say Detroit police are frustrated by the added paperwork required for arrests under the federal consent decree. {snip}

Fundamental breakdowns in other basic services also decrease public safety. Copper thieves have made land-line phone service in parts of the city, especially on the east side, unreliable and sporadic. It’s not unusual for phone lines to be dead when crime victims try to call 911.

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