Press Release

Detroit Justice Center Sues Wayne County in Federal Court to Defend Public's Right to Referendum on New Jail

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Detroit Justice Center Sues Wayne County in Federal Court to Defend Public’s Right to Referendum on New Jail

Suit alleges County provided only “sham notice” of its intent to issue bonds to finance new Criminal Justice Complex

DETROIT, MI, July 18, 2018—The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to demand that Wayne County properly notify residents of its intent to issue bonds to finance a new Criminal Justice Complex. The proposed complex, which would include a 2,280-bed adult jail and a 160-bed youth jail, has been met with significant public opposition.

In April of this year, the Wayne County Commission approved the issue and sale of up to $425 million in bonds to fund construction of a new jail and court facilities to replace the “Fail Jail” on Gratiot. By statute, Michigan voters have the right to seek a referendum on the issuance of bonds for capital projects. This right comes into being upon the publication of a Notice of Intent to Issue Bonds and expires 45 days later. On June 7, the County Commission voted to give final approval to the Criminal Justice Complex and to authorize issuance of bonds. The time period for a referendum had passed, unnoticed by most Wayne County voters.

According to the lawsuit, the notice published by the County on April 17 provided virtually no notice, stripping Wayne County voters of their right to a referendum on $425 million in additional public debt as well as the jail itself. Attorneys argue that:

  • The notice failed to accurately describe both the project and the bonds themselves. Of particular significance, the word “jail” is not found in the notice. A layperson encountering the notice would be left with little idea of what was being built or how much it would ultimately cost taxpayers.
  • The County published the notice in a manner calculated to minimize—rather than maximize—actual notice. Wayne County published a notice in the print-only edition of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News on a Tuesdaythe lowest circulation day after Saturday. The total estimated print circulation for both papers in Wayne County on a Tuesday is 22,714—approximately 2% of Wayne County’s 978,638 registered voters.
  • The notice cannot be found online using popular search tools such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. The notice was not placed on the Commission’s website or Facebook page. The notice can only be found online by searching a public notices database linked to the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News websites. However, a search using the keywords “Wayne County Jail” or even “jail” would not produce the notice because it fails to mention the jail.
  • Community members concerned about the Community Justice Complex were aware of the public right to referendum triggered by publication, and they actively sought information on the notice’s publication. When one plaintiff contacted a Commissioner’s office in early May to obtain information regarding the publication date, he was told the notice had not yet been published. Indeed, the County’s notice appears to have eluded even the Commission’s members.

The lawsuit, filed by the Detroit Justice Center on behalf of three Wayne County registered voters, argues that by publishing a notice that was a mere gesture—not actual notice—Wayne County failed to fulfill its statutory obligations and deprived its residents of their fundamental rights without due process.

Prior to filing this lawsuit, the Detroit Justice Center and community advocates requested that the County reissue the required notice. On June 26, DJC wrote to Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and the Wayne County Commissioners on behalf of citizens, community advocates, and attorneys who were alarmed by the revelation that the County intended to proceed with issuing the bonds. Signatories included American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, Black Youth Project (BYP 100), Civil Rights Corps, Detroit Action Commonwealth, Detroit Nation Outside, Detroit People’s Platform, Good Jobs Now, JustLeadershipUSA, the Michigan chapters of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers’ Guild, Street Democracy, the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, and others.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has declined requests to meet or republish the notice, claiming through the County’s legal counsel that the notice was sufficient.   

“The law requires voter input for a reason,” said Eric Williams, a staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center. “The people of Wayne County have a right to weigh in before saddling future generations with debt and, in this case, more jails. If this right is trampled on, then decisions are made with little connection or input from the people most impacted by them.”

Wayne County residents have long voiced concerns about the proposed new jail. For example, a Commission meeting on February 16th, 2017 was delayed by 42 minutes due to a demonstration by residents expressing their opposition to the jail. In April 2017, protesters gathered in front of the unfinished Gratiot Jail for two hours to criticize the County’s choice to allocate funds to a jail project rather than community resources. At two community meetings held by the County this spring, an overwhelming majority of residents opposed the Criminal Justice Complex, citing environmental concerns, cost concerns, and questioning the need for a new jail. At the meeting, residents asked for more public investment in mental health supports, affordable housing, and education, rather than new jails.

Read yesterday’s filing of Buni et al v. Wayne County here.

A PDF version of this press release is available here.

The Detroit Justice Center is a non-profit legal organization that works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. Read more about us at www.detroitjustice.org.

Angel McKissic