Bills would revamp prison sentences, prioritize ‘smart justice’ over punishment

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American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan officials stood alongside a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon to unveil a new bipartisan plan for sentencing reform legislation.

Sens. Curt VanderWall, Sylvia Santana and Jeff Irwin announce sentence reform legislation | Laina G. Stebbins

The proposed bill package, introduced by state Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington), state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), is part of a growing bipartisan effort to amend Michigan’s criminal justice system. The overarching goal is to overhaul the state’s mandatory sentencing laws to allow for a smarter, more rehabilitative criminal justice system.

“It’s quite simple: We don’t have a problem with crime. We have a problem with incarceration,” Santana said at the press conference.

Although the legislation has not been formally introduced, it already has strong support from justice reform advocacy groups in Michigan, including the nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP).

Sentence reform has grown in popularity among both Democratic and Republican legislators in recent years, although it’s failed to gain traction in the Legislature as of yet. It marks a shift away from the punitive “tough on crime” policies of years past, like those enacted by former Michigan Gov. John Engler beginning in 1991. 

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At the end of Engler’s 12 years in office, data from the House Fiscal Agency shows that the state’s total prison population had increased by more than 13,000.

The bipartisan legislation announced Wednesday is part of a number of criminal justice reforms introduced this year in the Legislature. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of state House lawmakers announced plans to reform the state’s expungement laws and make it easier for reformed offenders to access employment. 

In May, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed civil asset forfeiture bills which were backed by almost unanimous bipartisan support. 

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According to the ACLU, the average minimum sentence in Michigan (excluding life sentences) is about 10 years — a 32% increase from 2006 to 2016.

“Experts agree that locking people up for longer sentences does not correspond with public safety benefits,” Santana said.

Jeff Irwin

Irwin spoke along similar lines, emphasizing that habitual sentencing, which is imposing longer prison sentences for repeat offenders, is a huge obstacle in the way of what he calls “smart justice.”

“Here in America, we have this philosophy that the punishment should fit the crime. But here in Michigan, that’s not the reality of our criminal justice system. Because of these habitual offender laws. … Oftentimes, the punishment is absurdly out of line with the offense,” Irwin said.

Alex Rossman, communications director for the MLPP, said that the tentative outline of the legislation will include: 

  • Restricting the use of habitual enhancement to felony convictions that occur within the last 10 years.
  • Limiting types of offenses that are eligible for habitual enhancement to offenses that would actually indicate habitual behavior.
  • Count multiple convictions arising out of the same event as one felony when sentencing a person as habitual.
  • Eliminating the 25 year mandatory minimum for habitual fourth serious crimes.
  • Limit “double counting” the use of a person’s prior convictions as two offenses during sentencing.

In a statement, the ACLU said the Senate’s proposed bill package will give power back to judges during the sentencing phase, narrow the scope of who receives additional time, and “help reduce the state’s prison population, which has tripled since 1985.”

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