A free society depends on the rule of law. Citizens cannot enjoy the full blessings of liberty and prosperity if they are routinely threatened by violence or if there is no reliable mechanism to discourage and penalize wrongdoing. The tool used for these purposes is the criminal justice system.
Most people never come in direct contact with this system and go about their daily lives without having to know much about it. Even those who do interact with the criminal justice system at one time or another do not necessarily grasp how it works on account of its complexity. But it is an extremely important tool that everyone nevertheless relies on to administer justice and help protect the public.
Administering justice is an incredibly complex endeavor. At the state level, lawmakers are continually defining new crimes while various administrative agencies pass new rules and regulations that are criminally enforceable.[*] Citizens, who are expected to understand and comply with the massive number of laws in Michigan, pay taxes to cover the expense of maintaining 80 jails and 29 state prisons.[†] Layers of law enforcement agencies patrol highways, municipalities, natural areas, tribal lands and public institutions. Three types of trial courts hear cases in nearly every county, many of them also specializing in dealing with certain classes of offenders, such as veterans or those suffering from mental illness. Counties run probation programs and other alternatives to incarceration, while the Michigan Department of Corrections incarcerates and attempts to rehabilitate offenders, and supervises parolees. All of this and more must happen at the local, state and federal level concurrently — adding up to a complex system with hundreds of moving parts.
This system is expensive to operate. In 2017, Michigan lawmakers allocated over $2.6 billion of state revenue for departments that make and execute criminal justice policy, including the attorney general, the corrections department, the judiciary and the state police. And this figure does not include the costs of all the county-level and municipal-level courts — jails, sheriffs, police forces and ordinance bureaus that are funded by taxpayers locally.
The complexity and expense of maintaining this system have been steadily rising, fueling the growing debate about the effectiveness of Michigan’s criminal justice system. In recent years, lawmakers have repeatedly considered a variety of reforms and implemented some changes. But many stakeholders agree that there are more improvements that could be made. In light of these ongoing discussions, this primer aims to provide a thorough description of Michigan’s existing justice systems, with the intent of helping policymakers make better informed decisions.
This report describes the basics of how Michigan’s criminal justice system works: explaining some essential features of criminal law, the various layers of law enforcement, adjudication processes, prison policy and more. Unlike most policy papers, however, this report is meant to be strictly descriptive. That is, it does not attempt to judge the effectiveness of Michigan’s current criminal justice system or provide policy recommendations. It is hoped that the information contained here will contribute to more informed debate about how to best improve Michigan’s criminal justice system.
[*] Under Michigan law, administrative agencies may use administrative rulemaking to create crimes when a state statute specifically provides for that authority. See MCL § 24.232(3).
[†] All counties have jails except for Luce, Keweenaw and Oscoda, according to the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, based on a phone conversation with the author on Jan. 4, 2018. The Michigan Department of Corrections maintains 31 facilities: 29 prisons, one “bootcamp,” formally known as a “special alternative incarceration” facility, and the Detroit Reentry Center, which transitions prisoners out of incarceration. It also operates the Detroit Detention Center, which incarcerates people for short periods as they await trial. Robin R. Risko, “Budget Briefing: Corrections” (Michigan House Fiscal Agency, Jan. 2018), https://perma.cc/B3TR-R8TC.