Much of the national criminal justice reform conversation focuses on mandatory minimum sentences because they often result in harsh outcomes for people and our criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums require judges to impose a specific minimum prison sentence whenever someone is convicted of a given crime. This removes the judge’s ability to tailor the sentence based on the facts of the case.
Mandatory minimums also give prosecutors significant leverage in plea bargaining. The chance that a judge may decide to impose a lesser sentence if the prosecutor obtains a conviction is removed and thus gives defendants strong incentives to plead out in the face of guaranteed prison time.
Because mandatory minimums remove judicial discretion and require prison time, they tend to produce harsh outcomes in individual cases, and often increase prison populations and sentence length overall. To counteract these trends, advocates have focused on repealing mandatory minimums.
Michigan has few mandatory minimums, and none related to drug crimes. However, there are a couple mandatory minimums that have significant impacts within the current system, most notably MCL 750.227b, commonly known as “felony firearm.”
This law imposes a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony, which must be served before (not during) the sentence for the underlying felony. The mandatory minimum increases to five years if you have a prior conviction and 10 years for two or more prior convictions.
For example, if a person threatens another person with a gun, they can be charged with felonious assault and felony firearm because they used the gun as part of the assault. If convicted, that person would be required to serve two years in prison for the felony firearm charge, even if the judge sentenced them to probation for the assault itself.
The two-year prison term is mandatory regardless of the sentence for the felonious assault. For people with prior felony firearm convictions, the five- or 10-year prison term is in addition to the prison sentence for the new charges.
The mandatory sentence is specific to use of firearm. A person that did the same assault with another dangerous weapon, such as a knife, would not be subject to these additional charges and would simply serve the sentence for assault.
The felony firearm law has contributed significantly to both Michigan’s prison population and racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
In an analysis of 2013 Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) data, we found the following:
- Nearly a quarter of all incarcerated people serving time in April 2013, 23.2 percent (10,094 of 43,468 incarcerated people), had a sentence for felony firearm, and nearly 3,000 incarcerated people had multiple felony firearm sentences.
- At the time, this represented about 11 percent of all minimum sentences being served. Michigan annually spends approximately $35,000 to incarcerate each person it imprisons each year. We estimate the total cost of these sentences alone to be about $900 million.
With a falling prison population in the last five years, the raw numbers on felony firearm sentences are down, but they continue to be significant.
- In 2015, the House Fiscal Agency estimated that a bill giving judges discretion to impose a sentence of up to two years and whether it must be served consecutively (while leaving the other provisions in place) could eliminate the need for 2,500 prison beds.
- At the end of 2016, the longest sentence being served by 868 incarcerated people was the two-year sentences for felony firearm — meaning they were likely in prison because of the felony firearm charge. There were 317 people serving five-year sentences. (These numbers do not include others with felony firearm sentences that were not currently being served.)
The numbers with respect to racial disparities — particularly those from Wayne County (which includes Detroit) — are equally striking.
In 2013, Michigan’s prison population was about 54 percent “non-white,” but people of color were 80 percent of the people serving time for felony firearm.
Wayne County specific data
- 57.5 percent of the prisoners serving felony firearm sentences (5,753) were from Wayne County.
- 18.6 percent of the total sentences being served from Wayne County in 2013 were for felony firearm.
- 91 percent of the prisoners from Wayne County serving felony firearm sentences were people of color.
In the coming year, we will be working to raise public and legislator awareness of these issues and to pass legislation that gives judges discretion to impose a sentence of up to two years (or five or 10 for subsequent violations) that may be served at the same time as another sentence.
Giving judges discretion to impose a sentence that is appropriate based on the facts of the case is the smarter and more just approach. Mandatory minimums are bad policy that lead to unjust outcomes. In the coming weeks, we will share more information on this issue on our blog.