If you are ever standing before a judge to be sentenced in Michigan the least you’d hope for is a fair and impartial hearing. You’d never want a judge to decide whether to send you to prison, and for how long, based on factors such as whether you were able to afford your own attorney, what your gender is or whether you happened to be employed or looking for work.
And you probably wouldn’t think it was fair if one judge sentenced you to several years in prison, while another judge just a few miles across a county border gave someone probation on similar facts.
But these things are a reality, according to a recent study published by the state of Michigan’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission (CJPC) titled “Evaluation of Straddle Cell Sentencing in Michigan.”
The CJPC, a body in Michigan’s Legislative Council that is comprised of legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, has completed a study that starts to consider whether sentencing discrepancies might exist in Michigan. In order to do this, the study looked at a set of Class D felony cases known as “straddle cells,” which—unlike most in Michigan’s Sentencing Guidelines— don’t recommend either probation or prison sentences. Class D felonies cover a wide ground from assault with intent to great bodily harm less than murder, to operating or maintaining a controlled substance laboratory, to discharging a firearm at a dwelling or potentially occupied structure. Without recommended outcomes, these cells provide a good place to look for sentencing disparities because they provide judges the greatest discretion on how to sentence someone who is convicted.
The 2018 report dove into the data to look for patterns between various factors that might affect sentencing, such as demographics, education attainment, a history of drug or alcohol abuse, a history of mental health treatment, whether a person retained a personal attorney or relied on a court-appointed attorney and whether a case went to trial or was settled by plea.
Ultimately, the research found that some of these factors were correlated to a higher likelihood of a prison sentence, while others were not. Interesting trends emerged, such as:
- People who plead guilty or take a plea deal are 30.6 percent less likely to get prison time than people whose cases go to trial.
- Women are 9.9 percent less likely to get sentenced to prison than men.
- People who hire their own attorney are 6.4 percent less likely to go to prison than people who rely on a public defender.
- Those who are employed are 5.6 percent less likely to get a prison sentence than people who are unemployed.
- People who report having a problem with alcohol abuse are 4.6 percent more likely to get prison time than average. However, having a drug abuse problem was not shown to be correlated to a greater likelihood of a prison sentence.
- People up to the age of 37 are more likely to receive a prison sentence; after the age of 37, people are less likely to be sent to prison.
- Geography also plays a role. Of the state’s 57 circuit courts, 11 were more likely than average to sentence people to prison, 16 were less likely and 30 didn’t differ significantly from average.
The study used a weighted average to determine whether Michigan’s 57 circuit courts had sentencing discrepancies. Overall, the study found a person who faced sentencing for a straddle cell offense faced a 30.3 percent chance of being sentenced to prison, using the statewide weighted average. The weighted average takes into the account that some circuit courts are located in counties with large populations and handled great numbers of these straddle cell cases — such as the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County, with 1,149 cases — while other counties with smaller populations have circuit courts that handled far fewer straddle cell cases — like the 12th Circuit Court representing Houghton, Baraga and Keweenaw, with five cases. The weighted average makes it possible to draw comparisons across areas with such great population differences.
MICHIGAN CIRCUIT COURTS MOST LIKELY TO SENTENCE SOMEONE TO PRISON IN THE EVALUATION OF STRADDLE CELL SENTENCING REPORT, using weighted averages to account for the size of county populations:
|1st Circuit Court||Hillsdale County|
|13th Circuit Court||Leelanau, Antrim and Grand Traverse counties|
|15th Circuit Court||Branch County|
|25th Circuit Court||Marquette County|
|29th Circuit Court||Gratiot and Clinton counties|
|32nd Circuit Court||Ontonagon and Gogebic counties|
|33rd Circuit Court||Charlevoix County|
|34th Circuit Court||Ogemaw and Roscommon counties|
|35th Circuit Court||Shiawassee County|
|39th Circuit Court||Lenawee County|
|41st Circuit Court||Iron, Dickinson and Menominee counties|
|46th Circuit Court||Otsego, Crawford and Kalkaska counties|
|55th Circuit Court||Clare and Gladwin counties|
Of these, the 1st Circuit Court in Hillsdale County was the most likely to sentence someone to prison, which was 61.1 percent more likely to hand out a prison sentence than the weighted state average.
MICHIGAN CIRCUIT COURTS LEAST LIKELY TO SENTENCE SOMEONE TO PRISON IN THE EVALUATION OF STRADDLE CELL SENTENCING REPORT, using weighted averages to account for the size of county populations:
|5th Circuit Court||Barry County|
|7th Circuit Court||Genesee County|
|9th Circuit Court||Kalamazoo County|
|12th Circuit Court||Houghton, Baraga and Keweenaw counties|
|24th Circuit Court||Sanilac County|
|30th Circuit Court||Ingham County|
|31st Circuit Court||St. Clair County|
|36th Circuit Court||Van Buren County|
|40th Circuit Court||Lapeer County|
|43rd Circuit Court||Cass County|
|45th Circuit Court||St. Joseph County|
|48th Circuit Court||Allegan County|
|52nd Circuit Court||Huron County|
|54th Circuit Court||Tuscola County|
|56th Circuit Court||Eaton County|
Of them, the court least likely to send someone to prison was 40th Circuit Court in Lapeer County, which was 26.6 percent less likely to sentence people to prison than the weighted average.
The report theorized that it’s possible that the presence of problem-solving courts, such as sobriety courts or veterans’ courts, could play a role in the likelihood of a person receiving a prison sentence, but it said more research would be needed to see if that’s the case.
The following factors were shown to not play a significant role in whether someone received a prison sentence: whether an offense included a physical assault; the level of education attained by the person sentenced; and whether the person had a history of mental health treatment. While this study didn’t find a correlation between race or ethnicity and whether a person received a prison sentence, it’s important to point out that other studies have shown that there are racial disparities in the criminal justice system in our country.
Again, this report looked only at straddle cell Class D felonies, not the entirety of the Michigan criminal justice system. However, it does suggest that numerous factors beyond the facts of a case may influence whether a person convicted of a crime will receive a prison sentence or not. That should concern everyone.
This study is just a first step in understanding what factors drive sentencing disparities in Michigan, and we hope that it will spur further study by the CJPC and others on ways to make Michigan’s criminal justice system more equitable and fair for everyone who calls this state home.