Enacting some long-overdue reforms should pave the way to pass several others this year
A set of 18 bills recently signed into law will improve public safety and put Michigan on the track to administer criminal justice more efficiently, but there is still more work to do. The bills, championed by Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 30, are part of 21 proposals lawmakers have been discussing since last May.
The wide-ranging bills aim to collect more data about Michigan’s corrections system, reduce an offender’s likelihood of re-offending after leaving prison and cap the jail time that probationers can serve for violating the terms of their release. They also establish a parole system built on accountability and consistency and create special housing and programs for younger prison inmates, among other things.
Of the 20 reform proposals that made it to his desk, Snyder vetoed two. One would have created a program for collecting and managing data about the criminal justice system, a program that Michigan needs. Proos said that he had a commitment from the governor’s office to continue working on the issue. The other vetoed bill would have required the Michigan Department of Corrections to implement a program that might have landed state prisoners in county jails. Snyder noted that he vetoed that bill because jails do not generally have the same tools that the department uses to help ex-offenders successfully re-enter into society.
The reform bills enjoyed wide bipartisan support in both legislative houses. Only one, a misguided proposal to give taxpayer-funded grants to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders, did not pass. The idea may come up again, according to sources in the House, but legislators should let it die. Government should not be a third party to an employer-employee relationship, dangling a benefit to induce the employer to make certain hiring decisions. This skews the labor market and is unfair to people who have not broken the law.
The Legislature should not stop with the 18 bills that are now law, however. Instead, lawmakers should use the new consensus about the need for reform to work on other changes.
Michigan needs to create a sophisticated data collection program that gives reformers a complete picture of the jail and prison system in Michigan. That kind of program can follow people from the time they get ready for trial to when they go back into society, and it can show where government needs to make changes.
Lawmakers should also reform policies that disproportionately harm low-income people. Michigan imposes more categories of fines and fees on criminal and juvenile defendants than other states, and it is more likely to suspend someone’s driver’s license for an offense that has nothing to do with traffic law. These penalties can present insurmountable challenges to people who are on a fixed income or working an entry-level job, and they may even prompt offenders to engage in more wrongdoing in order to make ends meet.
Our state also imprisons poor defendants who can’t make bail and are detained pending trial, which produces worse outcomes for their individual cases while disrupting employment and housing markets as workers and tenants are pulled out of the community. Lawmakers should address the shortcomings of this system as well, which basically ensures that defendants who lack means will remain behind bars.
Finally, although the state has made strides on civil asset forfeiture, it still has not reformed the law so that police are required to secure a criminal conviction before seizing a person’s private property and selling it for profit. This practice, along with requiring bail, devastates poor communities while doing little to advance public safety.
The Legislature and governor should respond to the overwhelming support for smart justice and commonsense reforms to Michigan’s system to make other improvements. They should use the energy created by passing these new laws to make sure the state has a smart, fair, efficient system of fighting crime and helping people who commit crime get on the right path.