A whopping 46 percent of Washtenaw County’s $104 million annual budget is allotted to the sheriff’s department. Amid recent calls to defund the police, sheriff Jerry Clayton provides a closer examination of that budget in the context of his goals to reduce police violence and bias, increase police accountability, and divert people away from prisons towards social services.

The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for a surprising array of law enforcement and public services, and also brings in $18 million in annual revenue for providing patrol services to jurisdictions without police forces of their own. Deduct the revenue from patrol services and the county’s annual cost to operate Clayton’s department is $30 million.

Clayton says he’s in favor of restructuring public safety, but he wants to be sure that the public understands what programs and services his staff provide before they call for budget cuts. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for community corrections, which includes tethering, drug testing, and other measures to supervise offenders without locking them up. Its marine safety division offers boater education and provides law enforcement on the county’s seventy-five major lakes including all underwater search and recovery of drowned bodies. Deputies provide court security and serve as officers of the court whenever a judge requires it.

But the services Sheriff Clayton is perhaps most proud of are those that help keep people out of prison, such as the Community Engagement Program, a team of formerly incarcerated people serving as outreach workers in the community. “We hire ex felons because we believe there are no throwaway people. We divest from our own budget to do that work,” Clayton says. “These people are in the street every day.”

SURE (Sisters United Resilient and Empowered) is a trauma-informed therapeutic program run by a full time clinical therapist for mothers who have trauma and have children that are involved in the juvenile justice system. “The juvenile jails have been a revolving door because the mothers have trauma themselves and can’t provide the guidance their kids need,” says Clayton.

Calls to defund the police are unspecific, leaving others to make difficult decisions about which services to cut. Clayton points out that the Community Engagement and SURE programs are paid for out of the sheriff’s budget with money that had previously gone to police services. “The people don’t even recognize that we’ve already started this whole divestment,” he says.

With the onset of Covid-19,Clayton fast-tracked plans already in motion to reduce the county’s jail population–it’s less than half the size it was a year ago. When he was a member of the Governor’s Jail and Pretrial Incarceration Task Force, Clayton says, in the 20 jurisdictions they studied, 24 percent of the jail population was arrested for driving while their license was suspended. “Since Covid, the police are allowed to use discretion and advise and release,” he says. “Today, the percentage is 6 percent.”

Clayton says that the culture of the police force reflects the culture more broadly, and social justice reforms targeting the deconstruction of institutional racism must address these issues on all levels of society. He asks people calling for change to imagine “what a strong and sustainable community built on the co-production of public safety looks like. What is the experience of the people delivering the services? Then we can talk about what are the best strategies,” he says. “Can we adapt best practices to our local circumstances, and who are the right people in the right places doing the right things to execute those strategies?”

Clayton says program evaluation has to be built into these initiatives to turn them into successful long term programs. All of this costs money. If police and justice reform are true priorities, then county residents have to prioritize it with the necessary funding. Which, he points out, can’t happen if we defund the police.