On Thursday, Jan. 12 — the second day of the new session — the incoming Democratic majorities in the Michigan House and Senate announced committee assignments. For those of us interested in criminal justice issues, the focus is always the Judiciary committees, which handle the vast majority of criminal justice-related legislation.
There is much to discuss about the committees in both chambers, but we will start with the Senate, which is a bit more straight-forward than the House.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary committee will have seven members — five Democrats and two Republicans. This mirrors the composition in the previous session, which was five Republicans and two Democrats. The two Democrats that were previously on the committee, Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), return and Sen. Chang will chair. This is positive news for criminal justice reform, as both Sens. Chang and Irwin have been strong supporters of reform and have sponsored numerous important reform bills. They will be joined by another strong advocate for reform, Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), as well as returning Senator Paul Wojno (D-Warren) and newcomer and majority vice chair Sue Shink (D-Northfield Township). Republican Sens. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake Township), who will serve as minority vice chair, and Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township round out the committee.
Overall, this appears to be an excellent committee for criminal justice reform legislation. The committee leadership is knowledgeable, experienced, and supportive of reform. In addition, the numerical composition of the committee allows leadership to move bills out of committee even with a Democrat in opposition, or two Democrats abstaining, which could be an important margin on controversial issues. We expect this committee to be busy and productive.
As noted above, there is a lot to discuss in the House. First, House leadership elected to split the Judiciary Committee into two committees — Judiciary and Criminal Justice. Our understanding is that the former will focus on courts, court administration and civil issues, while the latter will focus on criminal law and related issues.
Second, while there is overlap in membership between the two committees, there are important differences in membership that make the Judiciary Committee much more appealing to criminal justice reform advocates than the Criminal Justice Committee.
Both committees are composed of 13 members, with eight Democrats and five Republicans, which mirrors the Judiciary committee in the previous session. The membership of each is as follows:
- Judiciary Committee
- Kelly Breen, chair (D-Novi)
- Kimberley Edwards, majority vice chair (D-Eastpointe)
- Kara Hope (D-Holt)
- Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield)
- Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit)
- Penelope Tsernoglu (D-East Lansing)
- Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield)
- Emily Divendorf (D-Lansing)
- Andrew Fink, minority vice chair (R-Adams Township)
- Pauline Wendzel (R-Bainbridge Township)
- Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes)
- Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township)
- Gina Johnsen (R-Odessa Township)
- Criminal Justice Committee
- Kara Hope, chair
- Joey Andrews, majority vice chair (D-St. Joseph)
- Stephanie Young (D-Detroit)
- Tyrone Carter
- Kelly Breen
- Penelope Tsernoglu
- Noah Arbit
- Emily Divendorf
- Graham Filler, minority vice chair, (R-DeWitt)
- Mike Mueller (R-Linden)
- Bob Bezotte (R-Marion Township)
- Brian BeGole (R-Antrim Township)
- Mike Harris (R-Waterford)
On the Democratic side, there is significant overlap in membership between the two committees — six of the eight members are on both — and there is not an obvious difference in experience or perspective within the differences that exist. In contrast, there is no overlap in the Republican membership of these committees, and the difference between the two is striking, Apart from Rep. Filler, all Republican members of the Criminal Justice Committee have a law enforcement background, and Reps. Mueller and Bezotte were vocal opponents to reforms in the last session. Reps. BeGole and Harris are new, but both expressed opposition to criminal justice reform in their campaigns. Rep. Filler’s stance on criminal justice reform issues is less easy to predict — as the most recent former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he supported some reforms but blocked various reform packages for the duration of the 2021-22 session.
The Republican members of the Judiciary Committee do not have the same track record of opposing criminal justice reform bills. In fact, Rep. Fink, the minority vice chair, sponsored one of the bail reform bills last year, and Rep. Wendzel sponsored one of the bills in the 2019-20 Clean Slate package. We should caution that their approaches to criminal justice reform may change now that they are in the minority. However, the Republicans on Judiciary do not appear to have a personal opposition to reform.
Given these differences between the House committees, it makes it even more important which committee a bill is referred to. Advocates could seek to have bills referred to the Judiciary rather than the Criminal Justice committee when possible.
Overall, these committees set up a promising legislative playing field for the upcoming session, and we are ready to get to work on a number of important criminal justice reform items. We will keep you informed as bills are introduced and work their ways through these committees.
– John S. Cooper