• Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency

After years of impasse, bipartisan Lansing drive for criminal justice reform

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Republican and Democratic leaders in Lansing have officially moved on from divided government’s early kumbayas into trash talking over Line 5 and proposed taxes on business and gas.

Criminal justice reform, however, seems to be staying above the fray.

Multiple bipartisan bills seeking to reduce the state criminal justice system’s reach have been introduced since the beginning of the year. Those bills — including proposed changes to civil asset forfeiture, the age of adulthood for prosecution and cash bail policies — likely will have a better chance to pass than in previous years.

Advocates each have their own theories as to why the moment is ripe for reform: Some say it can be chalked up to long-term negotiations over policy, others attribute it to changing attitudes about punishment and incarceration. All say they are thrilled there’s an appetite for change on a topic that has seen growing political consensus nationally in recent years, including among members of the public.

Seeing eye-to-eye on prisons

Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, and Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Township, sat side by side before the House Judiciary committee Tuesday, pitching their peers on legislation that would raise the age of who is considered a “juvenile” in the criminal justice system from 17 to 18 years old.

“Our knowledge of human development and behavior has changed dramatically, yet our policy towards 17-year-olds has not changed when it comes to criminal justice,” said Hauck, noting that Michigan began treating 17-year-olds as adults in 1912.

People who are tried in juvenile court are less likely to commit another crime than those tried as adults, Love said. “That represents long-term savings for our state and counties … and that means better outcomes for our communities, our state and Michigan families.”

Big changes from unlikely bedfellows are becoming a common picture around the Capitol complex, as bipartisan bill sponsors lobby for criminal justice reforms that often appeal to diverse constituents and for different reasons.

In addition to the 8-bill “raise the age” package (there’s a twin version in both the House and Senate), the Legislature is moving bipartisan bills that would rein in civil asset forfeiture by police and the cash bail system, while another bill would allow elderly and very sick inmates with a life sentence to be released to nursing homes.

Members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees said bipartisan legislation to expunge low-level crimes for people don’t reoffend will be introduced soon.

Many Democrats have pushed criminal justice reforms for social justice reasons; In the case of the “raise the age” legislation, the sponsors argued it would protect young offenders from older ones, ensure they have access to rehabilitation programs and help ease the over-incarceration of young prisoners of color.

And the “tough on crime” mindset of the ‘80s and ‘90s is now evolving among many Republicans, said Joe Haveman, a former Republican state legislator who is now director of government relations for the Hope Network, which helps ex-offenders rejoin the workforce. Now, Haveman said, Republicans are motivated at least in part by a faith-based push to reduce incarceration and the possibility of saving taxpayers money by reducing the prison population.

Criminal justice reform “allows people more freedom and puts people back into the workforce. It ultimately lowers crime by getting people out and back into their communities and homes and lowers recidivism rates,” Haveman said.

Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, is minority vice chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. She said this legislative session is producing new political agreement — between leaders of both Judiciary committees and among the new class of senators — over criminal justice reform.

Why now?

It is not the first time around the block for most of the proposed criminal justice reforms introduced this year. Previous versions have been discussed over and over in Michigan, only to die somewhere before reaching the governor’s desk.

Advocates aren’t sure whether any of the legislation will become law this year, but they say it feels like the timing is right.

State senators Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, (chair and minority vice chair of the Senate Judiciary committee, respectively) told Bridge this week that the makeup of the Senate has changed; it’s now more friendly to criminal justice reforms.

Chang said leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees now agree on most criminal justice priorities, which helps legislation move more quickly. For the last several years, former Sen. Rick Jones, who worked more than 30 years in law enforcement, helmed the Senate committee.

“With all due respect to Sen. Jones, he just had a different point of view,” Chang said. “Because he chaired Senate Judiciary for four years there were just some issues that were not going to move forward.”

Another reason, said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, minority vice chair of the House Judiciary committee, may be a part of the natural pattern of political change.

“This is a pendulum. In the ‘90s, the pendulum swung towards mass incarceration. And there's been a general societal realization that the pendulum swung too far. Now it's swinging back,” LaGrand said.

Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, chair of the House Judiciary committee, said with a Democrat in the Governor’s office, it’s fortunate that there’s bipartisan support for criminal justice priorities: “We have shared government, why not sort of grease the skids and keep these things moving?”

Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Township, argued before the House Judiciary committee Tuesday that the state would save money in the long run if it raised the age of whose considered “juvenile” to 17. He is one of the sponsors of the so-called Raise the Age legislation.

Sticking points

While shared legislative priorities are the first to get traction under divided government, some reforms continue to divide Lansing.

Gun control legislation, such as policies that would implement extreme risk protection orders and expanded background checks for would-be gun owners, are unlikely to be popular with Repubican legislators, Chang said.

Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in criminal law, said industry interests — such as bail bond companies that profit off of the current system or communities whose main employers are prisons — can slow the trend toward a criminal justice system that focuses more on rehabilitation and less on incarceration.

So can high-profile criminal cases such as the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, he said, which inspired legislation to increase punishments for child sexual abuse.

“Because if you oppose them, you were (portrayed as) in league with Larry Nassar, and that’s a career ender right there,” Henning said.

Haveman, the Republican former legislator who has pushed for criminal justice reform, argues the state also hasn’t gone far enough in changing sentences for juvenile lifersafter a Supreme Court case determined it was unconstitutional to give juveniles life without parole.

In any criminal justice standoff, Haveman said, it can be an uphill battle to convince legislators it’s worth taking the risk of upsetting law-and-order-minded constituents.

“Most legislators want to do what they feel is politically safe. And unless there’s an outcry from their public for things that are in the media all the time… they don’t want to stick their neck out,” Haveman said.

“The public is never going to have an outcry saying please let people out of prison. That doesn’t mean it’s not morally the right thing to do or, from a public policy point of view, the smart thing to do.”

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