HB 4419 would eliminate the mandatory two-year consecutive sentence

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 8-1 for HB 4419, sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise (R- Northville). The bill eliminates the mandatory two-year consecutive sentence for the possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony, or “felony firearm” offense. It increases the maximum to three years and gives judges the discretion to select a minimum within the sentencing guidelines. It also gives judges discretion to make the sentence consecutive or concurrent with the sentence for the underlying felony. A companion bill places felony firearm on the “F grid” of the sentencing guidelines.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, the bill could save up to 2,500 prison beds within five years of enactment, depending on how judges exercise their new sentencing discretion. Wayne County Chief Judge Robert J. Colombo Jr., and Kent County Circuit Court Judge Christopher P. Yates testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Michigan Judges Association. CAPPS joined several other organizations that also testified in support.

Legislators once believed that mandatory prison terms would deter people from using guns to commit felonies. However, while crime rates declined for every category of offense over the last several decades, there is no evidence that the possession of weapons during the commission of felonies declined any faster than the overall average. Instead, the law has:

  • Tied the hands of judges who, on the facts of a given case, might believe that something less than a mandatory two-year consecutive sentence is warranted.
  • Given prosecutors a very big hammer to use in plea negotiations.
  • Contributed significantly to prison expansion by causing some people to go to prison who would not otherwise receive a prison sentence and by lengthening the sentences of people who were prison-bound based on their underlying crimes.

In 2013, there were 1,275 prisoners whose longest minimum sentence was for a felony firearm conviction. That is, for the underlying felony during which the gun was possessed, the person received either probation or a minimum sentence of less than two years. In addition, thousands of people with minimum sentences longer than two years for the underlying felony may have had those sentences lengthened by the two consecutive years for felony firearm.

The felony firearm law is one reason why Michigan’s average prisoner length of stay is far in excess of national norms. Yet there is no reason to believe we are any safer than people in other states. Substantial research has never found a relationship between how long people serve and how likely they are to reoffend. There is no basis in either experience or evidence for believing that mandating two additional years for felony firearm either deters or corrects. We only know for sure that each felony firearm sentence costs taxpayers roughly $60,000.

We have no way of knowing exactly what the impact of the bill will be. Judges could still give minimums of as much as two years and they could still order those sentences to run consecutively. We also don’t know how prosecutors will adjust their strategies for plea negotiations. But we do know that the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for major controlled substance violations in 2003 helped reduce the proportion of new prison sentences for drug convictions from 23 percent in 1990 to 13.4 percent in 2013.

If HB 4419 is enacted, many people will serve less time or not go to prison at all. This is a good thing for them, for the MDOC and for taxpayers. And there is no reason to believe it is a bad thing for public safety.

 See also news on presumptive parole reform