A major policy shift on criminal justice laws is taking place, sweeping aside the tough-on-crime stances of the 1980s and 1990s and replacing it with an increased focus on rehabilitation, lowering recidivism and preparing offenders for life beyond a cell upon their release.

Now, lawmakers are taking a step back and shifting from locking people up and throwing away the key to moving toward releasing those deemed likely to succeed outside of prison once they hit their minimum release date and providing services to prepare them for release. Efforts to reduce recidivism and discussions on trying to reform lower level offenders and save taxpayer money with a decline in the prison population increasingly dominates the political discussion.

While in the 1990s, then-Governor John Engler led a push to house violent youths in a facility he dubbed the “punk prison,” now it appears inevitable that legislation raising the age when people are charged as adults to 18 from the current 17 will become law.

Massive changes have been enacted to improve legal representation for indigent defendants. Legislation last session was passed and signed into law that will compensate the wrongfully convicted. And there has been a focus on the Department of Corrections and state parole board to release lower-level offenders with a higher percentage chance of success after incarceration to as soon as they are eligible for parole rather than waiting until the maximum sentence is reached.

It is a reversal of a generation of laws begun in the 1980s when states were grappling with skyrocketing crime rates in cities tied to the growing drug war. Now, lawmakers are now moving toward rehabilitation which they say is based on science, while crime rates have been in decline since the mid-1990s.

Compared to decades past when lawmakers were talking about stiff, mandatory minimum sentences for offenders, lawmakers have now had civil asset forfeiture changes signed into law so police cannot seize the property of those charged with a crime without a conviction with parole for medically frail prisoners close behind and nearing the governor’s desk.

“It was a different era,” said former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, a Republican who served in the House from 1981-82 and the Senate from 1983-2002, serving as majority leader during his final four years. “In hindsight, we probably weren’t right. No one wanted to appear soft on crime.”

Mr. DeGrow said the tougher sentences for crimes, mandatory-minimums and other items enacted in the 1980s do not appear to have been effective and led to a spike in costs for corrections.

Safe and Just Michigan Executive Director John Cooper called the changes being seen in the state’s criminal justice system great progress, but much more work is still needed.

“Reform has advanced significantly in just the last few years. We certainly welcome the progress,” Mr. Cooper said. “There wasn’t bipartisan consensus before. It’s really refreshing to see criminal justice reform not to be a politicized partisan issue.”

Mr. Cooper said one area the Legislature could work on is making the state’s expungement process less restrictive, which would allow more people who have served prison sentences and have not offended again to pursue higher-paying jobs and be more successful.

Addressing mandatory-minimums for some crimes such as felony firearm charges adding to an individual’s sentence is another area to explore, Mr. Cooper said.

Another sign of the expense of the criminal justice system, Mr. DeGrow said, is that more is spent on corrections than higher education. The recommended higher education budget moving through the Senate is about $1.7 billion compared to more than $2 billion for the Department of Corrections. He said the annual cost to house a prisoner is so high that “we could send them to Harvard” with the funding levels spent on corrections.

Mr. DeGrow said changes such as those being considered for prosecuting 17-year-olds as minors except in cases of violent crimes like murder or rape are a good idea. He said the Legislature should give some of the more modern ideas a try since anything would be better than what was passed during his time in office.

Not all former lawmakers see the past legislation as a mistake. Alan Cropsey, who served in the House from 1979-82 and 1993-98 and the Senate from 1983-96 and 2003-10, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986-86 and again in 2005-06.

“We were having a huge increase in crime,” Mr. Cropsey said of the past era.

Mr. Cropsey said implementing tougher criminal justice reforms at that time was the right thing to do, saying the decline in crime took place after the reforms of that time were enacted. He stood by the changes and said if more lenient laws are passed today it will take time to see the results.

“It’ll be interesting to read the statistics in five to 10 years,” Mr. Cropsey said.

He said he is not surprised by the pace at which changes are being weighed today, but he questioned the motive behind them. Mr. Cropsey said it appears to him that the push for criminal justice reform today is being driven by a desire to drive down inmate populations to allow for prison closures.

He said lawmakers should think long-term and weigh the savings of prisons closures versus the cost to society of potentially having more violent criminals on the streets. Mr. Cropsey also said consideration needs to be given to the types of programs being enacted.

What was being considered during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s sharply differs from policy ideas that have been considered in the last couple legislative sessions but have suddenly gained bipartisan support this session.

A package of bills was signed last week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer making changes to civil asset forfeiture.

Under SB 2, HB 4001 and HB 4002, individuals would need to be convicted of a crime before law enforcement could assume ownership of property through the civil asset forfeiture process from seizures amounting to $50,000 or less. Supporters of the legislation have said while it is an important tool for law enforcement, residents deserve more of an ability to fight for their rights and property if not convicted.

After unsuccessful attempts at moving similar legislation in past sessions, the civil asset forfeiture issue emerged at the beginning of this session as one with bipartisan agreement and the support of Attorney General Dana Nessel.

The House and Senate have also, after failed attempts in recent sessions, begun making strides in pushing legislation that would end the automatic charging of 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system and moving them to the juvenile justice system.

Michigan, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin are the only states that still automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults, something lawmakers have said needs to change to get with the times.

Lawmakers have said evidence has shown that keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system can help reduce recidivism and not expose the youths to hardened adult criminals. The change in mindset has led many to believe the change can help reform more young people rather than end up falling into a life of crime, also saving taxpayers in the long run.

The Senate passed SB 90, SB 91, SB 92, SB 93, SB 94, SB 95, SB 96, SB 97, SB 98, SB 99, SB 100, SB 101 and SB 102 in April while the House passed HB 4133, HB 4134, HB 4135, HB 4136, HB 4137, HB 4138, HB 4139, HB 4140, HB 4141, HB 4142, HB 4143, HB 4144, HB 4145, HB 4146, HB 4443 and HB 4452.

The main issue being hashed out in the legislation this session has been finding the proper funding mechanism to keep counties whole. Currently the counties and state share juvenile costs 50-50.

Lawmakers earlier this month also sent legislation to the governor that would allow inmates with debilitating diseases and significant health issues to be moved to nursing homes for medical care.

The bills, HB 4129, HB 4130, HB 4131 and HB 4132, would allow those otherwise eligible for parole who have become medically frail to receive early parole under certain conditions.

Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) said her focus on criminal justice reform stems from what she said is the need to provide the rehabilitation part of the equation within the system. She said too often those that have served their sentences are released but not prepared to make the adjustment back to everyday life. Many do not have a support system or access to programs to help them succeed, leading to repeat offenses.

When asked why the push for change has grown in recent years, Ms. Santana said officials are realizing that not everyone in jail or prison needs to be there, and the sentences in some cases are harsh. Also, more can be done to reduce recidivism particularly for lower-level offenders.

“Lawmakers decided we needed to get tough on crime, locking people up and not ever considering the reform aspect of it,” Ms. Santana said. “People are acknowledging the error in their ways.”

Ms. Santana was involved in the 17-year-olds being moved to the juvenile justice system legislation.

She called it a start but there is more to do to improve the system. Ms. Santana said one idea she supports is a package of House bills introduced in March to ensure those jailed before trial are kept only when they pose a threat to society or are a flight risk and not simply because they cannot afford bail. Indeed, bail reform appears the next major frontier with Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Nessel, Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and top legislative Republicans all signaling an interest in putting together a plan, another move that would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago.

The concerns about going too far in the other direction are still there. Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he largely favors many of the changes the Legislature has been working on to the criminal justice system, but voted against raising the charge as an adult age to 18.

Mr. Runestad said he considers it a good thing to unclog the criminal justice system from incarcerating many low-level offenders such as “people who get kind of caught in the web … who are not terrible human beings, people who just made a mistake.”

It is the serious offenders who commit offenses such as murder and rape that can carry life sentences that ruin other people’s lives that he does not have sympathy for, he said, noting those individuals have forfeited their right to a second chance.

“My concern is not on the people stealing hub caps,” Mr. Runestad said, classifying such people as those who potentially can be reformed after making a mistake.

Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) has been pushing on changes to the legal system since the beginning of his time in the Legislature that as a former lawyer he said he has felt are necessary. He noted there has been a change in the state and the country on what works in the criminal justice system.

He said a 17-year-old cannot vote or sit on a jury so why should they, outside of certain violent crimes, be subject to an adult court and be exposed to repeat offenders and career criminals. Mr. Lucido was in agreement with supporters of the change that keeping juveniles in juvenile court can help to keep some youthful offenders from starting down the wrong path. It could also save taxpayers a lot of money in the long run with fewer incarcerated individuals.

Mr. Lucido took the lead on civil asset forfeiture during his first term in the House and has pushed the issue ever since, calling it satisfying to finally see the changes reach the governor’s desk.

“If the system doesn’t work, we’ve got to change the system,” Mr. Lucido said of charging 17-year-olds in the juvenile system rather than the adult system. “If you remedy this, you can change the behavior of individuals.”

Original source: www.gongwer.com
Release date: May 13, 2019