ACLU at the Michigan Capitol – March 7, 2016

Google "mass incarceration" and you get seemingly countless hits. Our massive prison population is the issue occupying the focus of state legislatures across the country, driving complicated and multi-faceted campaigns to reduce the percentage of state budgets that go toward locking up way too many citizens for way too long.

The ACLU of Michigan has a dedicated mission to building an effective strategy around Fair Justice/Smart Justice, with the goals of ensuring due process, proportionate and appropriate punishment for criminal activity, and significantly reducing the prison population. And we work with numerous other criminal-justice reform organizations occupying the ideological spectrum, from Amnesty International to Right on Crime

There are several bills floating around Lansing right now designed to shape better criminal-justice policy, such as a package to completely overhaul the juvenile justice system to better attend to the needs youthful offenders, bills that would give judges more discretion to give diversion sentences that may allow an offender to avoid jail, and bills that would overhaul Michigan’s complicated sentencing guidelines.

But it’s getting late in the 2015-16 legislative session and we are now heading into election season, that time of the year when politicians focus on their own campaigns instead of campaigns that address the greater good. And the Michigan legislature has not passed any significant mass incarceration reform bills since the Indigent Defense Commission Act of 2013.  However, out of the many pieces of legislation that would advance criminal justice reform, there are three bills that if passed this year, would have an immediate and substantial impact on reducing the numbers of people in Michigan prisons.

The first is HB 4138, introduced by Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Northville). This bill promotes a measure known as “presumptive parole,” which would require parole for incarcerated individuals who have served their minimum sentence, absent articulated “substantial and compelling” reasons for them to remain in prison. There is simply no demonstrated public-safety benefit to keeping a low-risk offender locked up longer than necessary. If this bill were to pass now, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) within 10 years Michigan would reduce the prison population by 3,600 inmates and save its taxpayers more than $80 million a year.

HB 4419, also introduced by Rep. Heise, would eliminate the mandatory two-year sentence for a “felony firearm” offense, instead implementing judicial discretion on the minimum sentence with a maximum of three years. According to MDOC legislative liaison Kyle Kaminski, ending mandatory two-year felony firearm sentences could free up to 2,500 prison beds within five years, depending on how many judges pursue lesser or concurrent sentences.

The third bill is HB 5273, introduced by Rep. Dave Pagel (R-Niles). Current Michigan law states that “Parole shall not be granted if the sentencing judge, or the judge’s successor in office, files written objections to the granting of the parole within 30 days of receipt of the notice of hearing”.  HB 5273 would amend this law to prohibit a successor judge objection from automatically barring parole, and instead the law would allow the successor judge’s comments to be considered as part of the record. Why is this important? About a quarter of all parolable lifers considered deserving of a public hearing for release by the parole board are automatically, with no stated reason, vetoed by primarily successor judges – judges who had nothing to do with the inmates case.  This legislation has been introduced in previous years and addresses the state’s serious problem of incarcerating too many low-risk offenders well past their parole eligibility date.

Please contact your elected representatives in the Michigan House and Senate and tell them that, if they do nothing else to address the crippling moral and financial repercussions of mass incarceration, passing these three bills—HB 4138, HB 4419, and HB 5273—will move the needle toward progress.