The Michigan House of Representatives has a new speaker this session, Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), and he has announced that the House committee process will work slightly differently this session than it has in previous years.

Until now, bills were sent to any number of standing House committees. Each of these committees had the ability to consider bills and hold hearings on them where experts and members of the public could give testimony. The committees could also vote on whether the bills should be sent to the floor of the House for a vote of the full chamber, though there was never a guarantee that a bill sent to the committee would ever be brought up for a vote by that committee.

Speaker Chatfield announced that he is modifying that process for the 2019-20 legislative session.

First, Speaker Chatfield realigned the standing committee structure for the current legislative session. Most importantly for people interested in criminal justice reform, he dissolved the House Law and Justice Committee that had existed in the previous session. That committee had considered many of the bills that were related to prison and parole reform, easing of licensing restrictions on formerly incarcerated people and similar issues.

The still-existing House Judiciary Committee will take up much of the work the former House Law and Justice Committee used to do. It will be responsible for considering all legislation that creates or changes criminal penalties. But this session, the House Judiciary Committee will have a new job as well. That’s because the House Judiciary Committee is one of four committees that have been placed as a final step between standing committees and the House Floor.

Under the new system, once a bill is voted out of a standing committee such as the House Education Committee or the House Tax Policy Committee, it will go to one of four committees tasked with doing a “dual review.” Those committees are the House Judiciary, Appropriations, Ways and Means and Government Operations committees. These four committees are responsible for giving bills one final review for sending them to the floor of the House.

What will this mean for people who are hoping to see bills move through the Legislature?

It’s difficult to say at this point, because we’ve not yet seen this process in action. However, we’re feeling hopeful because the Judiciary Committee has been identified as a key, influential committee.

Quoted in a story in Gongwer, Speaker Chatfield said, “Criminal justice reform and state budgeting are two critically important areas in particular, and both areas are going to continue to see important reforms. This new process will allow us to make more of a coordinated effort on those specific topics, carefully review how every bill impacts the larger picture and eventually pass better legislation for the people we represent.”

Additionally, the fact that the House Judiciary Committee is one of the dual review committees could shield criminal justice reform legislation from any slowdowns associated with a dual-review process, since it is likely that these bills will be sent to the Judiciary Committee in the first place.

The Michigan Senate’s committee process will not be changed this session compared to last session.

It will be interesting to see how the House’s new dual review process will play out as lawmakers get to work and start considering the bills that are now being introduced to the Legislature. And from the first indications, this could be a very important legislative session for supporters of criminal justice reform. Check back for a future blog post on that topic.