GENESEE COUNTY, MI — The number of people released from the Genesee County Jail on a tether has more than doubled since the pandemic started, according to the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.
Officials say tethers have been granted more frequently to those awaiting court proceedings in order to avoid overcrowding in the county jail.
There are more than 200 people currently on tether in Genesee County, Captain Jason Gould with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office told MLive-The Flint Journal.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail had an average of 80-90 inmates out on tether at any given time.
The pandemic put many court proceedings on pause for more than a year.
In 2020, there were only two completed jury trials held in the county. This meant courts faced a backlog of 1,300 cases and hundreds of jury trials earlier this year.
The average number of people on tether as courts were slowed during the pandemic rose to around 180-190, Gould said. This number surged to more than 200 after measures were taken to end a jail emergency that started in July and lasted nearly a month.
The emergency was called by county Sheriff Chris Swanson on July 19, after 10 days of overcrowding in the jail. The emergency ended on Aug. 12.
The sheriff is authorized to declare a jail overcrowding state of emergency through the Jail Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act.
In order to reduced overcrowding, a number of inmates were allowed release through the courts, many with on a tether, Gould said. Some inmates were also able to post bond and many sentenced inmates were sent to prison.
“It all came together at the right time in order to break that count to 555, which is when the sheriff ended the overcrowding emergency,” Gould said.
There are multiple steps taken before an inmate is released on a tether, Gould said.
First, the courts must grant the tether. Then, there sheriff’s office must determine an inmate has a place to be tethered to that has a working phone number and is not in proximity to co-defendants, victims or anyone in relation to their case. They also check to be sure the inmate is not at risk of suicide or dealing with other mental health issues.
People on tether previously could physically report to jail. Now, there are too many to report in person, so people will check in over the phone.
“The challenge with a tether is everyone needs to report,” Gould said.
He added it is important to note that when a person going through the court system is granted a tether doesn’t necessarily mean they can be put on a tether. The move can take three to five days for the sheriff’s office to release them to their designated location.
“I know this can be frustrating to family, but there is a process we have to go through,” he said.
With more people out on tether, there are also more tether violations, Gould said.
Since the pandemic, Gould said there have been about 6 to 8 violations a month.
Most are minor violations, he said, but there are rare cases where someone does commit another crime while on a tether.
Gould said there were 18 to 20 tether violations during the month-long jail emergency.
Violations can range from a minor offense such as someone letting the battery on a tether die to more serious ones like a “cut-and-run” absconder in which a person removes the tether and leaves their designated location.
Amid the jail overcrowding situation, Genesee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Duncan Beagle said every judge reviewed bonds on their cases and made any possible adjustments.
Judges also worked to ensure sentenced inmates were able to get to prison or a mental health facility as quickly as possible.
“There’s no question (tether used has) increased,” Beagle said.
Whether or not someone charged with a crime is granted a tether is under the discretion of each individual judge, Beagle said.
“Tough calls need to be made,” Beagle said. “The most serious offenses — first-degree murder, second-degree murder, assault with attempt to murder, criminal sexual conduct first degree — rarely are any of these going to be considered for tether. Are there some serious offenses? Yeah, there are.
“However, that’s why there’s an exhaustive study to make sure that, if you’re going to consider placing this person on tether, you’ve done your homework and you’re satisfied there won’t be any issues.”
Many factors are taken into consideration when a judge grants a tether, Beagle said.
Judges speak with investigators and consider any potential danger to the community. Prior offenses are also considered.
“I’ll tell you what, it’ll keep you up at night because the last thing you want to do is release someone who potentially might go out and commit a serious offense, so I can tell you it’s considered very carefully by both the district and circuit judges,” Beagle said.
There are more people on tether in Genesee County than Genesee County District Court Chief Judge Christopher Odette has seen in his 25 years in the courts.
The pandemic slowed down the process to get to cases “gigantically,” Odette said, causing a backlog in every system of the judicial process.
The good news is, cases are moving quickly now, he added.
“The bad news is there are probably people on tether who would otherwise normally not be on tether,” Odette said. “That’s my personal opinion.”
District court is the first stop for people facing criminal charges, but Odette said it is important to remember they are innocent until proven guilty.
In some cases, a tether means people facing charges were not just “languishing in jail” as court proceedings were on pause, Odette said.
Odette concurred that granting a tether is under the discretion of each individual judge.
For Odette, he said he looks at the severity of the offense and judges safety of the community before granting a tether.
He also reviews prior offenses and checks if an offender has a history of not showing up to court.
“It’s more of an art than a science,” Odette said.
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