We use the phrase “second chances” so often in criminal justice reform work that it can sometimes sound like a buzzword. We urge employers to adopt second-chance hiring to give people with a criminal record a chance at a job. The federal Second Chance Act provides grants to nonprofits and agencies that work to reduce recidivism. We encourage lawmakers to support our legislation in the name of second chances.
But to me, a second chance is much more than a catch phrase. I fought for my second chance for nearly 16 years inside Michigan prisons that held me after I was wrongfully convicted for the arson deaths of two young children. Day after day, year after year I called out for anyone who would listen to me explain my innocence. It took more than a decade for that to happen — and even when student journalists turned up new information that would have exonerated me at trial, it still took another three years to bring me home.
That’s when I found out that a second chance means more than just coming home. The stigma of having been incarcerated endures long after leaving prison — even if, like me, you were never meant to be there. Employers and landlords often hesitate to do business with you, schools won’t let you join your children on field trips, and even state identification cards are difficult to obtain. It’s easy to see why some people feel overwhelmed after incarceration.
But as we enter Second Chance Month this April, there is reason for hope here in Michigan. We have already introduced legislation that would ban the practice of sentencing youth to die in prison and to ensure people coming home from prison have state-issued ID cards. Later in April, bills will be introduced empowering people incarcerated on long sentences to have their sentences reviewed by a judge every 10 years. Finally, on April 11, automatic expungement will take effect, clearing upwards of a million criminal records overnight.
These initiatives — if enacted — would give people rejoining their communities a significant boost as they work to reestablish their lives. Just as importantly, they give communities a chance to show that we’re holding up our end of the bargain, too. We often say that people have to “pay their debt to society” after causing harm — by extending second chances, we are saying the debt has been repaid.
State-Issued ID Cards
For me, coming home was just the start of another maze of questions I had to learn to navigate. As an exoneree, people and organizations were generously sending me checks to help me reestablish myself and get started in my new life. But to cash them, I needed personal ID. I didn’t have that, since I had spent the last 16 years in prison.
That’s when things became surreal. To get a driver’s license, I needed a birth certificate. To get a birth certificate, I needed a Social Security card. To get a Social Security card, I needed a driver’s license. The only ID I had was issued by the Michigan Department of Corrections, but nobody wanted to accept that. I was put in the bizarre position of having to prove to the state that I was the same person they had locked up for the past 16 years.
I’m far from the only person this has happened to. The difficulty in obtaining state-issued ID cards has made it difficult for many people coming home from prison to find jobs, secure a place to live or even open a bank account. Our board vice president, Monica Jahner, has said this is one of the problems she most regularly encounters through her work at ARRO in Lansing.
House Bills 4191-4194 would change that by requiring the MDOC to provide people leaving prison with a state-issued ID whenever possible, with rare exceptions made in cases such as a person unsure about which state they were born in. Safeguards are also put in place to make sure that nobody would be held in prison longer simply because the MDOC hasn’t yet been able to provide them with an ID. In that instance, a person would be discharged on time and the ID would then be mailed to them at their new address.
I was able to share my story about the difficulty I had in obtaining ID after prison with the House Criminal Justice Committee when they took testimony on these bills on March 21. While no vote was taken on the bills during that meeting, we are hopeful that they will clear the committee soon and make their way through the rest of the legislative process.
You can view my testimony HERE.
Ending Juvenile Life Without Parole
Among nations, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences its children to die in prison. And among U.S. states, Michigan is among a minority that still practice sentencing juveniles to life without parole. It’s time Michigan to leave this shameful club, and bills introduced to both the House and Senate aim to do that.
The road to ending juvenile life without parole began in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it could no longer be used as a mandatory sentence. Four years later, they made that ruling retrospective, and Michigan’s juvenile lifers began to be resentenced and started coming home.
Just last summer, though, the Michigan Supreme Court took it one step further. It declared that mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences for people 18 or younger are “cruel or unusual punishment” and therefore violate the state’s constitution. This expands the U.S. Court’s ban on mandatory juvenile life without parole for people 17 or younger.
The bills before the Legislature would codify the state Supreme Court’s ruling into law, and make sure that no child in this state ever faces a life without parole sentence — mandatory or not. The bills are Senate Bills 119-123 and House Bills 4160-4164.
No hearing has yet been scheduled for these bills, though we are hopeful that will happen sometime in April. In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about juvenile life without parole and to listen to some of the people who are now home after serving these harsh sentences share their stories at our Life Beyond Life storytelling project.
April will bring positive — but quiet — change to up to a million Michiganders, according to the governor’s office. On April 11, Clean Slate’s automatic expungement takes effect, meaning old misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will be wiped off of public records overnight. No one will have to petition a court to do this, and there won’t be any charge to make it happen. Once done, prospective landlords and employers would no longer be able to see those convictions on a person’s record.
It will be a revolution for people needing a second chance, but a silent revolution. As of now, there will be no notification sent out to people whose records are cleared, meaning people will have to take the step of verifying an expungement themselves. However, Safe & Just Michigan is advocating for the development of an online tool that will help people do this task more easily.
Keep watch for more information about automatic expungement as April 11 nears. We plan to celebrate, and we hope you will, too.
Also in April, we expect to join with a coalition of lawmakers and criminal justice reform organizations to introduce Second Look legislation. This initiative would give people serving long sentences the ability to have a judge review their sentence after 10 years. In doing so, judges could rethink overly harsh sentences or bring new research on brain development to consideration.
Second Look legislation is crucial in a state like Michigan, where Good Time has been abolished and we still have a Truth in Sentencing law that demands 100 percent of a minimum sentence be served before parole can be considered.
Second Look would serve as a bulwark against Michigan’s dubious distinction as the state with the longest minimum prison sentences. While we have made progress in reducing Michigan’s overall prison population, most of that has come from reducing the number of people serving shorter sentences. Meanwhile, Truth in Sentencing and a lack of Good Time have made sure that people serving longer sentences have remained incarcerated. As a result, the average minimum sentence of a person incarcerated inside a Michigan prison has grown 34.8 percent from 8.9 years in 2011 to 12 years in 2021.
We’ll be sure to let you know when this legislation is introduced to the Michigan Legislature.