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

Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit (left) and Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Township (right) advocate for “Raise the Age” legislation before the House Judiciary committee Tuesday morning. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

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 lifers after 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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Kevin Grand
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 6:26am

Still waiting for the argument on how victims are in any way less affected because some politicians feels that criminals shouldn't be held responsible for their actions due to their age.

I would suggest that they implement a beta program to test this theory: Let's make advocates like Reps. Hauck or Filler directly responsible for these criminals.

When the criminals go back to their old ways, people like Reps. Hauck or Filler would be held directly responsible for their actions and face the same punishment.

Yes, this means that they would be cellmates and have to pay reparations for the damaged caused when that happens.

Let's see if they have the courage to stand for their convictions.

mary therese lemanek
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 8:55am

People can be held accountable for their behavior in a way that does helps them to mature and learn a better, productive way of living. We need to set aside the punitive "justice" system and incorporate a process of restorative justice that does in fact reduce the negative impact of the crime on the victim.

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:56am

Once again in your haste to be the first to comment, you show you didn't read the story carefully. Nobody in the article said juveniles who commit crimes shouldn't be held responsible, just that they shouldn't be treated as adults. Please respect the comment section and think through your responses before posting.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 12:45pm

Read the package of bills before reading what The Bridge has written.

I'm of the strong opinion there is a reason why the details of specific bills were not mentioned in the above article

You can easily pull up the Michigan Legislature's calandar and journals through their website.

Stephanie Landres
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 7:58am

The public in general might not, but I will. Our current system is abominable and it sickens me to no end that such heinous acts as what our "justice" system inflicts are done in my name.

It's still hard to believe that even these simple things require so much time and effort to pass, as if there is any legitimate "argument" to be had. Frankly, the "tough on crime" political opportunists are some of the worst monsters that can be found anywhere.

Dan Jones
Sat, 04/13/2019 - 12:52am

Yes, I totally agree. Our current "justice" system is corrupt and disgusting. It's broken, wastes taxpayer money, and isn't benefitting anyone except the wealthy owners of for-profit private prisons and the politicians they pay off. It focuses on revenge and punishment, including cruel and unusual punishments, which are supposedly unconstitutional, instead of giving people a second chance and opportunities to rehabilitate and become productive members of society. People who are "tough on crime" tend to be fearful, vengeful people who are only concerned with themselves. Just because someone makes a mistake and commits a crime doesn't mean they're not human anymore and don't deserve a second chance. There's a reason that Scandinavian countries, which have justice systems focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment, have some of the lowest crime and recidivism rates in the world. Treat people like humans, with dignity and respect, and give them the opportunities to improve themselves, and they will return the favor. Treat them like animals, like we do in the US, and they come out of prison angry and wanting revenge on society, which shows in our crime and recidivism rates.

Jeffrey Kelly
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 9:31am

Doesn't matter .. there are laws on the books for juvenile and the court determines " due to the nature of the crime we will charge them as an adult" .. this new stuff is like putting up another speed limit sign to stop people from speeding...

Bethany Delaney
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 1:05pm

I cannot fathom why they decided to deny educational opportunities while in prison, even to forbidding family to pay for it. Why do they go back to crime? Give them alternatives so that they can support themselves and a family.

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:50am

I was at the courthouse for jury duty astounded how big it is now and a Brink's truck picking up the money this is big business it will take quite a big all out war to change that somebodies are making big money from it.