Lieutenant governor visits Marquette

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II visited Marquette on Tuesday to meet with local business people and other residents. Gilchrist made other stops in the Upper Peninsula this week. (Journal photo by Katie Segula)

MARQUETTE — Racial disparity in the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice reform and small businesses are some of the main issues on which Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II has concentrated in recent months.

Gilchrist talked with The Mining Journal on Tuesday about these topics during his visit to the Upper Peninsula.

“Part of this trip for this week is really about hearing from people who had just a range of experiences in the last year and a half, so I’ve been spending time with small business owners,” Gilchrist said.

The state, he noted, has launched the MI New Economy plan, which is about supporting businesses, supporting the middle class and investing in infrastructure.

“We want to hear about what that program needs to look like from business owners and people who are taking risks and people who are working the small businesses too, so I’m visiting restaurants, visiting manufacturing,” Gilchrist said. “The diversity of the economy here in the U.P. is both important and impressive, so I want folks to know about that.”

One of Gilchrist’s duties as lieutenant governor is chairing the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.

Once testing was developed, it was discovered that an “overwhelmingly” disproportionate number of people of color tested positive for COVID-19.

“Forty-one percent of people who passed away were Black,” Gilchrist said, with a high percentage of Latino and tribal populations also affected.

The problem was not limited to Michigan. The Brookings Institution, based in Washington, D.C., noted in March that one in every 645 Black people in the United States can expect to die from COVID-19 per data from February. Blacks also are 2.1 times more likely than whites to die from the virus.

The task force’s goal — to flatten the mortality disparity — would help strengthen the overall response in Michigan, Gilchrist said, so the task force was created in April 2020.

Actions taken, Gilchrist noted, included promoting smart protocols such as social distancing and wearing masks as well as connecting people with resources while waiting for their COVID-19 test results.

“If you have a doctor, you’re going to have better health outcomes,” he said.

The interventions worked.

“We eliminated the racial disparity in COVID-19 mortality by December of 2020,” Gilchrist said. “We saw that Black Michigan, for example, went from 41 percent of the people who were dying to less than 3 percent of the people who were passing away.”

What caused the disparity in the first place?

“These are communities that have been vulnerable to poorer health outcomes overall — places where there aren’t a lot of healthy food choices,” Gilchrist said. “You see a lot of poor health outcomes when we have places with low air quality.”

An important lesson learned, he said, was the need to work with community and youth organizations as well as faith leaders and encourage them to be equipped with the right information to share with people.

“Those trusted messengers were way more effective than me, an elected official,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist also co-chairs, with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

“Almost every family has been impacted by the jail system,” he said, with people knowing somebody who’s incarcerated or who have family members in jail. “It’s devastating and destabilizing.”

A bipartisan consensus, he noted, decided the system needed to be fixed. So, the bipartisan task force was created in 2019.

With help from the Pew Charitable Trust regarding data analysis, Gilchrist said it was determined that half the people in jail were there because they had a fine related to having a suspended driver’s license that they couldn’t pay. Thus, the question asked by the bipartisan task force was: Do people need to get their driver’s licenses suspended for something that had nothing to do with their driving?

“No” was the simple answer.

The task force made policy recommendations to the Legislature to change the criminal code to stop taking away people’s driver’s licenses, he said.

“If you can’t drive to work, it’s hard to earn the money to pay it (the fine) off,” Gilchrist said.

Those recommendations now are in effect.

The result, Gilchrist noted, is reducing the number of people who go to jail in the first place, which he stressed can be costly since even a single night in jail can result in an individual losing a job or seeing a family disrupted if in a co-parenting situation.

The Lansing-based Safe & Just Michigan announced on Wednesday that a bipartisan group of legislators are sponsoring legislation to protect the rights of people awaiting trial and to ensure that everyone — no matter their financial circumstances — is treated fairly in bail hearings.

It said the legislation builds on the recommendations from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration and follows a set of task force-based laws that ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to unsafe driving, ended mandatory jail sentences for some misdemeanors, empowered police to issue appearance tickets instead of making arrests and directed courts to seek nonjail or nonprobation sentences such as fines or community service.

Mental health addressed

Another troubling situation, Gilchrist said, deals with law enforcement personnel confronting people having mental health episodes or having an overdose.

“The police officer knew that they were the wrong person to respond to that,” Gilchrist said. “They knew they weren’t equipped to do anything about it.”

The task force then made recommendations to reinvest in the behavioral health system to divert people out of the jail and incarceration and get them to a place where they could receive better help, he said. In the last few months, he and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put forward a proposal to rebuild the public health infrastructure in Michigan.

“Part of that means increasing access to mental and behavioral health support services,” Gilchrist said. “We had mental hospitals in Michigan 30 years ago. We don’t have those now.”

Gilchrist said he doesn’t want people to come in contact with the jail system, but if they do, they should have opportunities and support.

“Once you’re finished with the system, I want you to be positioned to be successful, to go forward and be your best self,” he said.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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