Over the last three months, our Justice Fellow Isaac LaGrand and our vice chair John Cooper have had more than two dozen meetings with lawmakers introducing our organization to legislators and lobbying for a number of bills currently in consideration. Here is a snapshot of what criminal justice reform policy looks like in Lansing right now:
"Medically frail" parole. Michigan requires every prisoner to serve 100% of their minimum sentence in prison, regardless of the state of their health. As a result, hundreds of prisoners who are terminally ill or mentally or physically incapacitated cannot be paroled to facilities where they can be appropriately treated or visited by family members. House Bills 4101 and 4102 from State Rep. Dave Pagel would create a special parole for medically frail prisoners. These bills were voted out of the House Appropriations Committee in late February, and voted out of the House by large margins in early March. They are now pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee where they will hopefully have a hearing soon.
Parole for low-risk prisoners. Prisoners in Michigan serve the longest average sentences in the country. One key reason for this is that many low-risk prisoners are not paroled when first eligible. A new bill, HB 5377, would change that by requiring the parole board to parole low-risk prisoners unless there is objective, "substantial and compelling" evidence that the prisoner will be a threat to public safety. Currently the parole board does not have to give a reason to keep someone in prison; HB 5377 would fix that problem. The bill was voted out of the House Law & Justice Committee on April 10, but it has not yet been brought up for a vote in the State House.
"Raise the Age" cost study. Michigan is 1 of only 5 states that treat 17-year-olds as adults for purposes of criminal responsibility and process them through the adult system. The campaign to "raise the age" to 18 years old has been going for several years, but stalled in the 2015-16 session due to concerns about the potential costs of this reform. On March 7, the Criminal Justice Policy Commission adopted a cost study that projected it would cost the State and individual counties $26-$60 million. John Cooper of Citizens Alliance On Prisons and Public Spending and CJV believes that this cost study overstates the likely cost of this reform, and fails to take into account longer-term savings from improved outcomes. Cooper and other "raise the age" supporters have taken the study in stride and convened a working group to develop a proposed funding mechanism to cover the cost of the reform.
"Good time." House Bills 5665-67, recently introduced by Representatives LaGrand and Howrylak, seek to restore something like the "good time" program eliminated by ballot initiative in 1978. "Good time" programs reward prisoners for good behavior with a reduction in their minimum sentence for every month they serve without misconduct. Michigan is one of a handful of states that does not have a such a program, and the elimination of it has been a significant factor in the growth of Michigan's prison population and its average sentence length. The bills are pending in the House Law & Justice Committee.
Bail reform. Representative LaGrand will soon introduce a package of bills to reform Michigan's bail system, which currently detains thousands of people daily because they are too poor to afford bail. Pretrial detention for even a matter of days can have disastrous consequences in a person's life including loss of jobs, housing, transportation, and even custody of children — all without a determination of guilt. Representative LaGrand's bill package will ban pretrial detention of a person solely on inability to pay bail and require courts to make detention decisions only based on whether the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to the public.