Lawmakers Unveil Criminal Justice Reform Packages to Increase Safety, Reduce Costs

(The Center Square) – COVID-19 isn’t stopping sweeping criminal justice reform in Michigan.

Legislative leaders unveiled a bill package of recommendations from the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration based on hundreds of testimonies and a dive into 10 years of statewide arrests and court data.

The bills aim to stop treating Michigan’s criminal justice system as one-size-fits-all for crimes.

Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said the package will help many people living paycheck to paycheck.

Santana told of a man attending community college and working to support his girlfriend and child until he was pulled over and arrested for an unpaid outstanding ticket and jailed for a few months.

The man didn’t know he had a ticket. He lost his job, a semester of college, and his girlfriend and son became homeless.

“How is locking that gentleman up changing public safety? How did we fail him?” Santana asked. “How could we have made this situation better by making sure he could work out some agreement as far as the tickets and payment process?”

The 19-bill package aims to:

  • Eliminate driver’s license suspension as a penalty for offenses unrelated to dangerous driving;
  • Prioritize alternatives to jail when sentencing people for low-level offenses;
  • Increase the use of arrest alternatives at the front end of the system;
  • Reduce jail admissions for people on probation and parole.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he plans to prioritize the changes this fall.

“The Jails Task Force has opened up a closed world with data,” Shirkey said. “They’ve given lawmakers the information we need to retool a justice system that sets too many people up for failure rather than success.”

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said that fixing a broken criminal justice system so people are treated fairly shouldn’t be a partisan problem.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of people sit inside of a jail, often when they pose no danger to the public,” Chatfield said. “We can create more just and effective laws while ensuring public safety, and this reform puts us on that path.”

House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said that many penalties and fines for minor infractions hinder Michiganders from improving their lives.

We started using the justice system “as a debt collection system rather than the justice system it was intended to be,” Greig said, which resulted in jails costing Michigan half a billion dollars each year.

Republican Rep. Bronna Kahle, of Adrian, spoke on her HB 5853 that aims to reclassify many traffic misdemeanors as civil infractions.

Jail is useful for removing a dangerous person from society, Kahle said, but not for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Harper Woods Democrat Rep. Tenisha Yancey’s HB 5851 seeks to eliminate license suspension for driving violations that aren’t for dangerous driving.

Driving without a valid license is the 3rd-most common reason to be jailed in the state.

Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper applauded the package’s introduction.

“The task force’s recommendations would make a number of important changes to Michigan’s criminal justice system – from ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for reasons that have nothing to do with unsafe driving to getting rid of mandatory minimums for jail sentences – that will both save money and improve public safety,” Cooper said in a statement.

“It’s even more encouraging to see that these proposals have such strong bipartisan support in the Capitol – just as they do among the public. We hope to see all of the proposals made by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration taken up as legislation and quickly passed into law.”

By Scott McClallen

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