State task force delivers 18 criminal justice reforms to GOP leaders, Nessel abstains

(L-R): Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 9:23 a.m., 1/17/19

Nine months after Gov. Whitmer appointed a Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration to examine and improve Michigan’s criminal justice system, the task force released its final report. It delivered 18 policy recommendations to legislative leaders at the state Capitol Tuesday morning.

The task force was created by the Democratic governor’s executive order in spring 2019, and has met periodically since then with the goal of producing legislative recommendations that members said would make Michigan a national leader in criminal justice reforms.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

The main recommendations include expanding alternatives to arrests and jail time, lessening harsh policies around traffic violations, addressing financial barriers to compliance, shortening certain sentences and imposing caps on others, investing in victim services and strengthening defendants’ right to a speedy trial.

The task force had assistance and funding from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization for public policy. Pew has provided staff resources providing technical assistance to the project, a contribution that amounts to roughly $1 million.*

The final report and recommendations were originally set to be released last week, when task force Co-Chairs Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack convened the full group at Boji Tower early Thursday morning for its final meeting. 

But as the almost hour-long meeting wrapped up, it became clear that those recommendations were not yet ready to be released — and that Attorney General Dana Nessel was not ready to sign off on them. Nessel did not attend Tuesday’s press conference.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

After the meeting last week, Gilchrist declined to publicly release the documents or talk specifics about their contents, telling inquiring reporters that they were “still in draft form” and would be finalized the following evening.

Nessel was the only one of 21 members not to vote “yes.” Instead, the Democrat abstained. She said several areas in the report do not strike an appropriate balance between all involved shareholders — particularly, the needs of crime victims.

Nessel also spoke Thursday of the need to better address challenges regarding mental health care and addiction, saying that Michigan “needs a robust mental health care infrastructure to work in tandem with the criminal justice system.”

She continued: “Because of these concerns, I am unfortunately not able to affirmatively vote to adopt the report in its current form today. To decide otherwise would be to fail in what I view as my responsibility in the administration of criminal justice for all Michiganders.”

Nessel added that she hoped her abstention “will allow this conversation to continue at the Legislature, where I will vigorously advocate for innovative criminal justice reform.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

At Tuesday’s event at the Capitol, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) both praised the task force for its efforts and committed to giving the recommendations consideration in the Legislature.

Upon being asked by the Advance whether Nessel had an opportunity to sign off on the final version of the report and recommendations, Chatfield did not answer directly, but spoke about the importance of the attorney general’s involvement.

“I think that’s a question for the attorney general,” Chatfield said. “I know she’s been an integral piece in this process, and I stood with her on day one [of the Legislature’s session] … when we sought to reform our criminal justice system with civil asset forfeiture. So I know this has been a priority of hers, and I look forward to having conversations with her as well in the coming weeks. She’s going to be a very pivotal part of seeing these [reforms through].”

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Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney provided a transcript of the attorney general’s task force remarks last week in lieu of a statement from Nessel on Tuesday’s event. 

The task force’s final report and recommendations have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan; the Lansing-based Michigan League of Public Policy (MLPP); and Safe & Just Michigan, an advocacy organization for humane criminal justice reform policies.

(L-R): Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

“The Task Force’s proposal includes much needed reforms that will advance racial justice, while making Michigan a more just state for all,” said ACLU Executive Director Dave Noble in an emailed statement. “We applaud these bold recommendations and call on the Michigan legislature to adopt these recommendations into law and to continue to prioritize reforming the state’s criminal legal system.”

The task force’s series of legislative recommendations include policy changes for:

  • Arrests and arrest alternatives: Reclassifying minor misdemeanors like traffic offenses as civil infractions rather than criminal, expanding officer discretion, and reducing the use of arrest warrants to enforce court appearances and payments.
  • Bail and pretrial release and detention: Strengthening the presumption of release, setting higher thresholds for imposing conditions for release, and providing speedier detention hearings and trial dates for defendants.
  • Sentencing, and probation and parole violations: Increasing alternatives to jail sentences for certain offenses, reducing civil infraction fines and addressing other court-related financial barriers to compliance, and investing in and strengthening victim services.

Correction: This story has been corrected with Pew’s staff contributions to the effort.