This past year has been one of extremes. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tragic and caused enormous loss, as many people with loved ones inside prison know all too well. At the other extreme, it has also been a year of unprecedented gains in criminal justice reforms. In between, all of us at Safe & Just Michigan kept up with a dizzying pace of change, including technological, staffing and societal.

Here are the 10 biggest developments in criminal justice reform and at Safe & Just Michigan that we observed over the past year. Not all of them are positive. In fact, one of them — the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — are particularly heartbreaking. But their importance can’t be denied.

  1. Passage of Clean Slate legislation

Since 1965, Michigan has understood that second chances matter — that’s when the state began offering set asides, more commonly known as expungements, of some convictions on a criminal record. But up to now, the state of Michigan has been extremely selective as to how many convictions it will allow a person set aside, what kinds of convictions, and who is even eligible to apply. That all changes in a few months when Michigan’s new Clean Slate legislation comes into effect. A package of seven laws, the legislation considerably widens the types of convictions eligible for expungement and allows a person to have more convictions set aside. Perhaps even more importantly, one of the laws creates a process to automatically expunge up to two felonies and four misdemeanors, excluding certain offenses such as assaultive crimes.

The bills also:

  • Allow for the expungement of many kinds of traffic offenses for the first time
  • Creates a process to set aside marijuana-related offenses that would now be legal under Michigan’s recreational use law
  • Shorten wait times to petition a judge for expungements
  • Allow multiple offenses to be bundled together and considered one offense for the purpose of expungement, so long as they were all committed within a 24-hour period, were not assaultive offenses, did not involve the use of a dangerous weapon and are not offenses that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years or more in prison
  • Allow an unlimited number of simple misdemeanors to be expunged.

The automatic expungement law carries a two-year phase in, as the state will have to create technology that allows court, state police and corrections computer systems to communicate with each other. The other laws will take effect in April 2021.

If you have questions about Clean Slate, we’ve put together a FAQ here.

  1. COVID-19 ravages Michigan prisons

On March 10, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the first cases of COVID-19 had been detected in Michigan. One day later, a person who had been incarcerated in the Kinross Correctional Facility near Sault Ste. Marie was taken to a hospital in the Lower Peninsula. There, it’s believed he contracted the coronavirus and was given a test for COVID-19 on March 17 that later returned a positive result.

From that point on, COVID-19 barreled through Michigan’s prison system at a frightening pace. The first death of an incarcerated person happened on April 4 — a 55-year-old man at the Parnall Correctional Facility. But he would be far from the last. As of this writing, 102 people in prison have died of COVID-19, and more than 19,000 have tested positive, or more than 55 percent of all the people incarcerated in our state prison system. In addition, there have been 2,502 COVID-19 cases and three deaths among Michigan Department of Corrections staff. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Michigan has ranked among the most alarming states in terms of the highest number of people in prison with COVID-19, the highest percentage of people in prison who tested positive, and the highest number of deaths.

In response, Safe & Just Michigan joined with American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program and ACLU-Michigan to urge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and MDOC Director Heidi Washington to take action that would allow people inside prison to follow CDC guidelines, such as socially distancing and wearing masks. Those recommendations included providing soap and other materials for cleaning, allowing people eligible for parole to go home, and suspending Michigan’s strict Truth in Sentencing law. While the some paroles were pulled forward and some people were released, the governor declined to take up suggestions to suspend Truth in Sentencing.

The lack of action prompted further responses, including Capitol drive-by rallies, Twitterstorms and calls for action outside of prisons. With the advent of vaccines to prevent COVID-19, Safe & Just Michigan is waiting to hear whether incarcerated people will be prioritized for vaccination. No plans have yet been announced.

Meanwhile, with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines, help is on the horizon. The state recently announced that prison staff and some people who are incarcerated will be among the first people in the state to be vaccinated. Prison employees will be inoculated in round 1B, immediately after health care workers are vaccinated. People who are incarcerated and over the age of 65, or who have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or other factors that can lead to more severe complications from COVID-19, will be vaccinated in round 1C. Others who are incarcerated will be vaccinated along with the general public who do not have pre-existing conditions.

  1. Passage of bills related to the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration

The formation of task forces is a time-honored tradition among politicians who want to appear active on tough issues that offer difficult solutions. So when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the formation of a Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration in early 2019, it wasn’t clear what the group might amount to. The governor tasked the group with coming up with solutions to a clear problem: Michigan’s jail population has been steadily growing over the past decade — a time during which the state’s crime rate has been falling. Why is that happening, she wanted to know? And what can be done about it?

Indications that this was more than a typical blue-ribbon committee became clear as soon as appointments were announced to the group. It was to be led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack — two high-level, high-power individuals who wouldn’t be tasked with an only-for-show committee. The panel also included legislators from both the Democratic and Republican parties and both chambers of the Legislature, as well as judges, representatives of law enforcement, social workers, academics and people who had direct experience with the justice system. The panel held meetings across the state to field testimony from the public before drafting a final report, which was presented in January 2020.

That report contained 18 recommendations which were intended to be transformed into legislation. By year’s end, lawmakers had taken up the call and passed many of them into law. They include legislation that:

  • Ends the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses
  • Eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for certain misdemeanors
  • Encourages alternatives to jail, probation and parole
  • Extends the maximum age to qualify as a youthful trainee
  • Lowers the maximum length of probation sentences

It should be noted that these new laws don’t incorporate all the suggestions of the jails task force. Some recommendations, such as bail reform and making significant improvements to the way Michigan’s mental health and criminal justice systems interact, will hopefully be tackled in the coming legislative session.

  1. DUI expungement

One of the largest criticisms of the Clean Slate package when it passed was that it excluded an avenue for expungement for DUI offenses. While one of the new laws made it possible to set aside traffic-related offenses for the first time, that law specifically excluded DUI convictions. At the time it was written, that bill was crafted in a way to include as many offenses as possible while still keeping the support of the powerful Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan organization, which holds a lot of influence in the Michigan Legislature. That group made it clear they would not support a bill that included expungement for DUIs.

Excluding DUIs from Clean Slate cost the package some support, most notably from Rep. Beau LaFave, who campaigned to include DUIs in the Clean Slate legislation. When that failed to happen, he introduced House Bill 6453, a separate bill to allow people to petition for the expungement for a first conviction DUI offense. A companion bill mirroring it, Senate Bill 1254, was introduced by Sen. Ed McBroom (this move was necessitated as the House lost a week of lame duck session due to a COVID-19 outbreak). As of this writing, the Senate bill had cleared the Senate and the House Judiciary committee and was waiting its final vote in the House.

If it passes, it would be a huge advancement for Michigan, where 33,000 people were convicted of DUI in 2019 alone. It’s estimated that 200,000 would benefit from this bill, which would allow people to petition a judge to expunge a first-offense DUI. That means it wouldn’t be covered under the automatic expungement of Clean Slate. Still, it could bring relief to several thousands of Michiganders who have contended with lifelong consequences from a DUI conviction on their record.

  1. Occupational and professional licensing reform

Michigan requires occupational or professional licenses for a number of jobs, ranging from cutting hair to selling homes or fixing plumbing. These licenses typically carry a requirement known as “good moral character,” which up to now hasn’t been specifically defined. In practice, that has meant that people who have a criminal record have routinely been denied a professional or occupational license, as having a conviction has been used as evidence that a person lacks good moral character.

Bills passed by the Legislature in December will change that. The new laws will end the presumption that having a conviction on one’s record is the sole evidence needed that someone lacks good moral character. The package of laws directs licensing boards that a criminal record is not a reason to deny a license unless all the following conditions are met:

  • The record includes a felony conviction.
  • The occupational or professional licensing statute states that the type of felony involved is a disqualifying offense (ie, a child abuse conviction would disqualify one from operating a childcare facility).
  • The licensing board or agency concludes the offense has a direct, specific negative effect on the applicant’s ability to perform the duties authorized by the occupational or professional license.
  • The licensing board or agency determines that the state’s interest in protecting public safety is superior to the individual’s right to pursue the occupation or profession only if it can be based on all of the following:
    • The offense is substantially related to the state’s interest in protecting public safety.
    • The applicant, based on the nature of the offense and on any additional information provided by the licensee regarding his or current circumstances, is more likely to commit a subsequent offense if granted the license.
    • A subsequent offense committed with the aid of the license will cause greater harm to the public than it would if the individual did not have it.
  1. Safe & Just Michigan releases Felony Firearm report — first issue paper in five years

Our organization has always been organization that advances criminal justice reform policy. At the same time, however, we also engage in the research that underpins the arguments for those reforms. In the past, these research projects have included sweeping projects such as studies on parole denial, corrections spending and a plan to reduce Michigan’s prison population by 10,000 people.

However, after Barbara Levine, the founder of Safe & Just Michigan (then known as the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, or CAPPS) stepped back from the organization, research slowed. That changed with the hiring of Dr. Anne Mahar as research specialist in 2019, and many research projects are now underway.

The first of those to reach publication, “The Problems of Mandatory Sentencing: The troubling legacy of Michigan’s felony firearm law,” was released in on Oct. 8. It details how this problematic law has been used by Michigan’s prosecuting attorneys in a disparate way — both geographically and by race — to effectively increase both Michigan’s prison population and the average length of stay in our prisons. It’s hoped that this research will encourage lawmakers to roll back the felony firearm law, which has done nothing to keep Michiganders and their communities safe.

In the coming months, Safe & Just Michigan will release more research papers. Stay tuned!

  1. Migrating online in the age of COVID-19

On March 16, six days after the first COVID-19 case was found our state, Safe & Just Michigan temporarily closed its office in Lansing and directed its team to work from home. It was a stressful time — not only because of the pandemic itself and because we were concerned about its impact on incarcerated people, but because the annual Day of Empathy was just a week away, and we were the host of the Michigan event!

Though we’d never hosted such an event online, we quickly switched gears and prepared to offer our lineup of speaker panels through Zoom — much as many other organizations and workplaces were learning to do at that time. A lot was at stake: not only was this a high-profile national event sponsored by #Cut50, but our plan included speaker panels featuring guests like Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack and Siwatu Salama-Ra, who became nationally known after her incarceration on a felony firearm charge.

You can watch those discussion panels on our YouTube channel:

Not only did the Day of Empathy go well — it went so well, we decided to continue holding online events. Building on that success, we created a slate of online discussions covering a range of topics that featured nationally known speakers such as Fordham University Professor John Pfaff and Michigan notables such as state lawmakers. Topics included:

  1. Open for business at the Criminal Justice CAFE

In the time of COVID-19, some cafés have switched to take-out service only. Others, like the Criminal Justice CAFÉ, exist only online. The Criminal Justice CAFÉ is an hour-long program broadcast via Livestream every Thursday morning (except holidays) at 10 a.m. on Safe & Just Michigan’s Facebook page. Presented by Fresh Coast Alliance and Safe and Just Michigan, and co-hosted by our Community Engagement Specialist Rick Speck and Fresh Coast Alliance’s Nate Johnson, the program features conversation and interviews with criminal justice reform newsmakers. It also brings to light several people who aren’t as widely known but who are doing interesting and innovative things in the areas of reform and re-entry.

For instance, earlier this month, Nate and Rick where happy to welcome incoming Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch to the program. Justice Welch won her seat on the bench in the November election. Her decisions will have an immense effect on people seeking appeals to their cases as well as criminal justice reform advocates working to bring about systemic change. Getting a chance to sit down and talk with her while she is undoubtedly busy preparing for her new job was a phenomenal opportunity.

Over its 30 episodes to date, the Criminal Justice CAFÉ also talks with entrepreneurs and community organizers who work day in and day out to make a difference in their communities — people like Detroit Forever 313 clothing brand owner Jose Rivera and A Brighter Way Executive Director Cozine Welch Jr.

To watch, just go to our Facebook page Thursdays at 10 a.m. — or catch a replay anytime that’s convenient for you on our Facebook page.

  1. A different sort of Annual Meeting

Safe & Just Michigan’s Annual Meeting became yet another event that had to drastically change because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of gathering in person like we normally do, we had to shift gears and plan to meet in a virtual space in order to protect everyone’s wellbeing.

But, we found out, that also had its upside.

Holding our meeting online made it easier to invite special guests to join us from far away who might otherwise not have the time to come to Michigan — especially just one month before an important election! We were especially fortunate to have Desmond Meade and Neil Volz of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition be our featured speakers at the 2020 Annual Meeting. Having Mr. Meade as our featured speaker was even more exciting this year, as he was named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2019, and shortly before he joined us at our Annual Meeting, he was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes news program.

Presenting Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II with the annual Gov. William G. Milliken Award was also a highlight of the evening. The award is presented to a public official who positively influences criminal justice reform in Michigan. Gilchrist, who co-chaired the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, certainly earned it.

Finally, the annual meeting marked Safe & Just Michigan’s 20th anniversary — including our years as CAPPS. We were so grateful that CAPPS founder Barbara Levine gave a message to everyone during the event.

You can watch our entire Annual Meeting here.

  1. Safe & Just Michigan deepens the bench

Last but not least, Safe & Just Michigan benefitted this year by adding two talented people to our team.

In January, we said goodbye to Mary Lynn Stevens, our former development director, who retired. But she left us on solid footing as she helped bring our new Development Director Amy Smitter on board before going. Amy, who has a career’s worth of experience in nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity of Michigan, Michigan College Access Network and Campus Contract. She said she felt drawn to Safe & Just Michigan because she wanted to become involved in the work of criminal justice reform — and we are glad to be the beneficiary of her decision. Under her guidance, Safe & Just Michigan has managed a relatively smooth transition to an all-virtual environment in 2020 without having to worry about being financially sound. That’s quite an accomplishment in a year that has brought momentous opportunity for criminal justice reform in Michigan while at the same time being incredibly trying and taxing in nearly every other regard.

Soon after, Rick Speck joined us as our community engagement specialist. Rick had one of the strangest first days on the job anyone has ever had — he was moving into the office on March 16, the same day everyone else was moving out because of COVID-19! It must have been difficult to become an outreach coordinator for an organization that you didn’t get a chance to work for in person before moving to an online environment, but that didn’t slow down Rick. He has been instrumental in spreading the word about Safe & Just Michigan’s online learning series, our legislative efforts, and representing Safe & Just Michigan at events such as the Youth Justice Fund’s Summer Trauma Camp and Metal Health Workshop and the voter outreach project.

We’re thankful to have both Rick and Amy on our team, and we are stronger because of their expertise and their hard work.