When the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration released a report earlier this year recommending sweeping changes to the state’s criminal legal system – changes the ACLU of Michigan’s Smart Justice campaign has been pushing for nearly three years to dismantle a system that locks up far too many people, especially Black people – proponents of reform had reason to be optimistic.
The comprehensive composition of the Task Force, which includes judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, and victims’ rights advocates, as well as public defenders, politicians and advocates for incarcerated people, gave hope that legislators on both sides of the aisle would embrace the group’s recommendations and begin passing laws addressing the devastating problem of mass incarceration in our state.
On Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on one of the first of several packages of bills prompted by the Task Force report, the diversity of groups supporting the legislation reinforced the belief that the push for reform is coming from across the political spectrum.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative nonprofit that champions free-market economic policy, and Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, both voiced support for the bills, which would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of misdemeanors.
Also, on board are the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association and Safe & Just Michigan, which works to advance policies that will end Michigan’s overuse of incarceration and promote community safety and healing.
The ACLU of Michigan, which worked with the Task Force from the outset, supports the legislation as well. These and other reform efforts align with our Smart Justice campaign, which aims to cut mass incarceration in half and eliminate racism in the criminal legal system.
Kimberly Buddin is the Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Michigan and heads the Smart Justice campaign. She notes that the package of legislation – House Bills 5844, 5854, 5855, 5856, and 5857 – are a crucial first step in the right direction. The bills address a wide variety of crimes, ranging from truancy and driving while impaired to hunting offenses and driving a snowmobile or boat while under the influence of alcohol.
According to the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation, decades of evidence show that lengthy, mandatory sentences do not reduce crime, but impose high economic and social costs on taxpayers and families. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws also tend to create unwarranted disparities by treating offenses inconsistently. FAMM believes that judges should have the authority to consider all the relevant facts and circumstances of a crime and an individual before imposing a fair punishment.
Buddin adds that ending mandatory sentencing laws, even for misdemeanors, is a crucial piece of the reform puzzle the Legislature is trying to piece together to reduce mass incarceration and overhaul our pretrial system that, among other things, gives judges more discretion in sentencing.
“Mandatory sentences tie judge’s hands, preventing them from considering the unique circumstances of a person’s case such as their role, motivation, or likelihood that they will continue to commit crimes,” said Ms. Buddin. “This approach to sentencing is unfair as and ineffective at reducing criminal behavior because it is not consistently applied.”
Diana Prichard, community engagement director for Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, also provided written testimony to the committee urging it to pass this package of bills as a springboard to more reform.
“Taken on their own, they are a vital first step in creating a justice system that lives up to its name, but when taken with the other bills in the task force’s packages they have tremendous potential to transform the future of our state,” wrote Ms. Prichard.
The bills are expected to be voted out of committee next week. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on another set of critical Task Force bills later this month addressing sentencing, probation, and case initiation all of which work toward the ACLU of Michigan’s Smart Justice goals of dismantling racism in the criminal legal system and finding alternatives to incarceration. The legislature has just 26 days left in this session to pass these bills and others critical to overhauling our criminal legal system. Call on your state legislator today to pass these bills that will help end mass incarceration and eliminate racism in the criminal legal system.