This year started with a lot of promise for criminal justice reform advocates in Michigan. For the first time in 40 years, Democrats secured a hold on the governor’s desk and both chambers of the state Capitol, leading many to hope that our legislation would get favorable committee hearings and votes on the House and Senate floors.
So hopes were understandably high as Safe & Just Michigan backed bills that would end the practice of juvenile life without parole, establish productivity credits, overhaul the cash bail system and much more. Our friends at partner organizations such as Michigan Justice Advocacy and Citizens for Prison Reform worked on legislation to bring back Good Time and end solitary confinement.
However, our hopes had to be tempered with other realities on the ground. In reality, Democrats hold very tight majorities in both the House and Senate, and Republicans are using crime and punishment as wedge issues in the upcoming election. This has made Democrat leadership reluctant to take up legislation that they fear could hurt them at the ballot box, grounding work on many of our bills to a halt.
On top of that, the legislative year came to a close in November — far earlier than usual — in order to allow for newly passed laws to come into effect in time for next year’s presidential primary election. That happened as the Democratic legislative margin shrank as two members left to become mayors in their communities, bringing the House to an even Democratic-Republican split and causing Democrats to be even more cautious about taking up potentially controversial legislation until those seats can be filled again in April 2024. These events have further frustrated people waiting for action on important criminal justice reform bills.
But that doesn’t mean 2023 was a wash. In fact, in many measures, we were successful beyond belief. On April 11, automatic expungement went into effect, and since then, more than 1 million old criminal records have been cleared. More than 275,000 Michiganders have seen their entire criminal records cleared through automatic expungement, giving them a fresh start as they look for good jobs, safe and affordable places to live and educational opportunities. Those aren’t just numbers — those are people and real human lives. Automatic expungement has completely cleared the records of 2.8 percent of everyone living in Michigan, or to look at it another way, 10 percent of everyone in Michigan who had a criminal record no longer has one thanks to automatic expungement. We’ve also featured the voices of formerly incarcerated people through projects like Life Beyond Life, our narrative project supporting the work to end juvenile life without parole, and established a presence on Instagram, where we’ve quickly found a following.
We’ve created some year-end graphics to show what we’ve accomplished in the past year — and to show where we may find opportunities in 2024:
Our first graphic highlights the varied activities that kept us busy over the past year. We helped shepherd the state through the launch of automatic expungement and co-hosted 25 expungement fairs, worked on 40 bills, crafted and uploaded 39 videos, maintained an active presence on Facebook and X/Twitter and introduced ourselves to Instagram.
Fun Fact: Our videos were shared a total of 426 times from the YouTube platform!
Creating more expungement opportunities for people in Michigan — and then helping people make the most of those opportunities — is a cornerstone of our work. That mission has never been more important than it was this year, as the state kicked off automatic expungement. Michigan is fortunate to be the first state in the nation to automatically expunge some felonies.
But there is a challenge here as well.
Unfortunately, the state isn’t telling people once their record is cleared. That means it’s entirely possible for someone to have their entire criminal past wiped from public view, not know about it and continue to check a box indicating they have a felony when they apply for a job or apartment. That defeats the entire purpose of getting an expungement! Safe & Just Michigan is working with our partners and the state government to create a portal that will empower people to go online and check their expungement status free of charge. We don’t have a date for when that will be available, but we will let you know when that comes closer to being a reality.
We’re also mindful that not all offenses can be automatically cleared. That’s why we continue to work with partner organizations to bring expungement fairs to communities around the state. In 2023 alone, we co-hosted 25 of these fairs that served 4,644 people.
Fun fact: Since the start of automatic expungement, 279,210 people — or 2.8 percent of the state of Michigan’s population — has had their criminal record completely wiped clear!
As we mentioned above, it was a challenging year for legislation. For a variety of reasons, it became difficult to move bills through the Capitol as the year wore on. However, we did see 40 bills that we support introduced to the Legislature and make it through various stages of the legislative process. And this doesn’t even include the 19 bills that originated from the Juvenile Justice Task Force that were championed by the Michigan Center For Youth Justice that completed their legislative journey and were signed into law this year.
Some of those proposals, such as one to provide people with vital documents before leaving prison, are nearly to the finish line. Others, like a plan to overhaul the cash bail system, are still at the beginning.
We are lucky to have so many dedicated supporters who show up when we put out the call to attend committee meetings, legislative action days and other events to show support for these and other bills. Lawmakers need to know that the people who vote for them want to see these bills passed into law.
While we didn’t get as much legislative action as we had hoped in 2023, we are positioned to hit the ground running in 2024. We caution that next year is a major election year, so politicians are likely to be cautious about the bills they back once again. Your vocal support will make it easier for lawmakers to vote for the proposals we want to see become a reality.
Fun fact: The chair of the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, which has taken up most of the bills we back, is Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), who has previously supported many of our proposals and who received our William G. Milliken Award this year.
This was a big year for our video efforts for a couple reasons. First, we hired Communications Specialist Zack Whaley, and his expertise at video production and editing has been invaluable. An organization with a small staff like Safe & Just Michigan is truly fortunate to have someone with that kind of specialized talent on board!
Second, we continued to release videos in our Life Beyond Life project, which showcases the stories and lived experiences of former juvenile lifers. People don’t get to hear the stories of formerly incarcerated people nearly often enough, and that goes double for those who were sent to prison to die while they were still in their teens. Our narrators got a chance to come home thanks to a series of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions in 2012 and 2016, but the story doesn’t end there. Our Life Beyond Life storytellers — and Safe & Just Michigan — are now working to make sure no more teenagers in Michigan are ever sent to die in prison again.
We also uploaded videos that showed the human toll of cash bail, the liberating experience of getting an expungement and shared videos from our events, such as our JLWOP Legislative Action Day on Oct. 3. For the first time, this year we also produced a Spanish-language version of a video!
Fun fact: Our most-watched video this year was Ed Barakah Sander’s story in Life Beyond Life.
Facebook remains one of the best ways for us to get word out to our supporters about upcoming events, action on our legislation, educational opportunities and activities hosted by our partner organizations and news from neighboring states. In recent years, we have used Facebook to host Livestreams of events, such as the JLWOP Legislative Action Day and our Celebration of Healing on Oct. 18.
The social media landscape is constantly evolving, and we are always monitoring it to determine how to best reach our supporters.
The analytics offered by Meta, the company that owns Facebook, show us that our audience on Facebook skews a bit older than our audiences on other social media platforms such as Instagram. That only underscores the importance of Facebook for us, as our older members are crucial to supporting the legislation we back and to showing SJM support as well.
Fun fact: We saw 7,841 Facebook page visits in 2023, up 82.5 percent from 2022!
If you’re someone who ventures onto X — or Twitter, as it used to be called — then you already know it’s a platform that’s gone through a lot of changes recently. Not only has it got a new owner, a new name and a new logo, it’s also taken on a raft of new policies. Some of them, such as ones that have loosened restrictions on what is deemed hate speech, have made both advertisers and organizations think carefully about how they want to engage with the platform.
We’ve determined that for now, there are too many people active on X/Twitter for us to leave. It remains an important tool for getting the word out about news and events, for organizing and for keeping up with the people and organizations that are important to our movement.
For now, we are remaining on X/Twitter, but we are monitoring the environment there and will reassess if it becomes too toxic.
Fun fact: Our tweet in 2023 that got the highest engagement rate (16.3 percent) was made on June 8 telling people that two-thirds of people sentenced to juvenile life without parole in Michigan are Black, even though Black people comprise just 14.1 percent of our state’s population.
This was the first year that Safe & Just Michigan made a concerted effort to have a presence on Instagram. To be honest, it went even better than we could have expected. We began to get views and pick up followers almost instantly, providing us with one more avenue to get the word out about expungement fairs, legislative efforts and more.
Instagram is an important part of our social media outreach because it trends younger than other platforms. For instance, the three top cities that our Instagram followers call home are Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing — each either neighboring or home to sizable college communities.
Fun fact: Instagram is also heavily weighted toward female followers — 68.9 percent of our followers there are women!
~ Barbara Wieland
Senior Communications Specialist