We all believe that justice should be applied equally. In artwork, justice is depicted as a blindfolded woman who can’t even see who she is judging, showing that she is fair and impartial in her rulings. We want to believe that no matter what race we are, where we live, how much education we have, or whether we have a public defender or the means to hire a private attorney, all of us will have the same, fair outcome in a court of law.

Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily the way it works. Research being done in Michigan and around the country shows that two people convicted of similar crimes can receive very different sentences depending on several variables, such as the demographic descriptors of a defendant, whether a case is heard in a rural or urban setting, or whether a person has a public defender or private attorney. That’s not right. Everyone wants to believe that they will have a fair trial — and if convicted, a fair sentence — no matter who they are, where they are or how much money they have in the bank.

That’s one reason why the Criminal Justice Policy Commission is working on a study that looks at sentencing discrepancies in Michigan for a certain set of cases where sentencing guidelines don’t recommend either prison sentences or lesser sanctions, known as “straddle cells.” These situations without recommended outcomes provide a good place to look for sentencing disparities because they provide judges the greatest discretion to decide to send someone to prison or not.

While a draft of the study isn’t yet available, the commission discussed initial analysis during their meeting on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Our hope is that the study’s results will eventually lead to new policies that bring about fairer sentencing throughout Michigan. Some of the variables the commission the report is looking at may include:

  • Whether a courtroom is in an urban or rural setting
  • Whether a person is convicted by plea or by trial
  • Whether a person has a court-appointed or personally hired attorney
  • The gender of a defendant
  • The race of a defendant
  • Whether a defendant has a history of alcohol or controlled substance use

While it will take some time for a final report to become available — in fact, a draft report has yet to be presented — it will be very interesting to see how much these different factors are affecting sentencing in Michigan. Once that is better understood, we can advocate for better sentencing guidelines that will make sure that all people are treated fairly in the courts — not matter who they are, where they are, or whether they can afford an attorney of their own.

Safe & Just Michigan will keep you informed about the progress of this report, and about the efforts to pass better policies that will arise as a result of it.