The June meeting of the Criminal Justice Policy Committee (CJPC) included the introduction of a new chair, the results of new research conducted on sentencing disparities in the state of Michigan and a review of our state’s habitual offender statute.

Overseeing her first meeting was the new Chair Amanda Burgess-Proctor, an associate professor of criminal justice at Oakland University. Her first order of business was discussing the mandate for the continuation of the commission, which is set to expire in September 2019.

During the last legislative session, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that would have extended the commission’s mandate for four years. However, the ultimately successful House version extended the CJPC for only nine months.

Even when a legislator deeply cares about an issue, they often don’t have time to get new ideas or even to follow up and ensure already-passed reforms are successful. So, they often turn to non-partisan commissions made up of subject-area experts, like the CJPC.

When you imagine the sheer amount of legislation proposed during any one legislative session and the broad categories each legislator needs to understand, it is easy to see the value in creating legislatively empowered expert commissions to provide advice and suggest alternatives.

Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township), Chair of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, and Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), both of whom participated in the meeting, expressed support for extending the commission’s mandate. Chair Burgess-Proctor arrived at consensus for sending a letter to the legislative leadership asking for an extension of the commission’s authority.

Next on the agenda was an update from Grady Bridges, the commission’s data administrator, about his newly finished report “Evaluation of Straddle Cell Sentencing in Michigan: Class E Felonies.”

This might sound a bit complicated, but Bridges was presenting a report about how judges actually applied straddle cells for people with Class E Felonies in the State of Michigan in order to determine if those decisions were made appropriately.

So, what are straddle cells?

Judges have been given the discretion by statute, in certain circumstances, to sentence people for certain designated crimes to either jail or prison time. Jails generally only hold people who have been sentenced for up to a year of incarceration. So these sentences start with periods of incarceration at one year or less and move up from there. The sentencing guidelines contain boxes (or cells) explaining where someone’s crime fits in the guidelines, so when the cell doesn’t suggest either jail or prison time, it is referred to as a “straddle cell.”

One of the original mandates of the CJPC was to explore the possibility that our sentencing guidelines were being applied in racially disparate ways. Investigating how this plays out in different parts of the sentencing guidelines can help determine which areas need to change and what changes might be necessary to ensure our system is generating fair sentencing outcomes.

This new report found eight issues significantly related to someone being sentenced to prison instead of jail in these cases: conviction method (trial vs. plea), attorney status (retained vs. appointed), employment status, offense crime group, gender, race, age, and the circuit court where the person was sentenced.

Since the report was just released on June 6, it was decided that the members take some time to digest the data, draw conclusions and make suggestions for recommendations the commission can discuss and potentially report back to the Legislature.

The final agenda item was a briefing on the basics of Michigan’s habitual offender statute. This statute allows prosecutors to ask for and judges to sentence people beyond the ceiling set by sentencing guidelines based on the number of times they have been found guilty of prior crimes.

For example, in a widely publicized case, a man was found guilty of selling three pounds of marijuana, which usually carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. The person arrested for selling the drugs had a previous felony background, and a search of his home subsequent to his arrest turned up several firearms. Possessing a firearm while having a felony record usually brings a maximum sentence of five years. Because the previous convictions, each of the additional charges made him eligible for charges under the habitual offender statute, so he was charged as a habitual offender and sentenced to 40-60 years in prison.

One of the issues raised in the discussion of the habitual statute was the notion of being doubly penalized for having a prior record. In other words, you get put in a different category of potential punishment for having a prior record, and then once you are put in the habitual category, you can be punished again based on that same prior record.

The meeting ran out of time soon after this conversation began, and there wasn’t time to get much beyond the double-counting problem.

The next meeting of the CJPC has been set for July 10.

~Policy Analyst Josh Hoe