Democrats’ push to cut inmate sentences draws fierce pushback in Michigan
- Democrats are advancing legislation that could allow inmates to get out of prison early for good behavior
- The bills sparked widespread criticism, from GOP lawmakers to Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel
- The bills are part of a larger Democratic reform to rehabilitate incarcerated people before releasing them back into society
LANSING — Democratic-backed bills that could allow inmates to serve less time in prison are prompting opposition from prosecutors, victim groups and law enforcement.
The bills would allow prison inmates to petition for a lighter sentencing after serving a decade of their sentences and earn productivity credits toward early release.
The legislation aims to provide an alternative to keeping people in prison, investing money instead on rehabilitation, said House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck.
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Michigan spends $2 billion a year on its corrections system, according to the state budget records. The state prison population has dropped 26 percent in 10 years to about 32,250, records show.
“When we lock someone up, it is a very expensive endeavor, and is on the backs of taxpayer money,” he told Bridge on Friday. “We need to start examining potential tools to allow us to observe and assess some of that efficiency or inefficiency in the system."
GOP lawmakers, prosecutors and others have slammed the legislation as extreme, saying it would release dangerous criminals, re-traumatize victims and burden courts with a surge in resentencing requests.
Rep. Graham Filler, R-Saint Johns, deemed the bills “unnecessary,” arguing the judges have already determined the fair sentences for the inmates. He said the bills would cause an “impending public safety crisis” and are “tilted” in favor of criminals.
The bills are part of a larger Democratic reform to help rehabilitate incarcerated people before releasing them.
A five-bill package championed by House Criminal Justice Committee Chair Kara Hope, D-Holt, would allow most inmates to petition the court for reduced sentencing after 10 years in prison, and re-petition every two years if the last petition was denied. Eligible inmates would also be allowed to ask for further reductions five years after their sentence was last reduced.
The court would have to grant a hearing to all eligible inmates within 180 days of the petition. At the hearing, a judge would be able to consider a series of evidence, such as the inmate’s age, physical and mental health and behavior in prison and the nature of the crime, among others.
Under the bill, if those sentenced to life in prison without parole are granted a new hearing, judges would be barred from imposing another life without parole sentence.
Inmates with a range of medical conditions would have a quicker path to a court hearing within 45 days after the petition is filed.
Mass shooters — people convicted of three or more counts of “first-degree premeditated murder — would be excluded from benefiting from the process, according to the legislation.
Hope did not return a Bridge inquiry seeking comment Thursday. Asked for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's position on the bills on Friday, her spokesperson, Bobby Leddy, issued a statement pointing to her experience as a former prosecutor and funding of $1 billion for public safety during her first term as governor.
"For those who do get caught up in the justice system, we believe that people should take responsibility for their actions and pay their debts to society if they’ve made a mistake, but also firmly believe that people deserve second chances especially for non-violent offenses," the statement read.
During a Thursday press conference, Republican lawmakers and multiple crime victims blasted the legislation.
House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, said the bills would qualify more than 17,000 “dangerous criminals” for an immediate chance at a lower sentence.
That would include 5,140 inmates convicted of first- and second-degree murder and 1,760 others convicted of criminal sexual conduct, all of whom have served more than 10 years in prison, according to a Republican handout, citing data from the state Department of Corrections.
“Many of these people … were probably sentenced to life without parole,” Hall said. “This would allow them to get out now. All they would need is one of these hearings.”
The possibility of a perpetrator getting out of jail early frightens victims, Filler argued, and the courts could face a spike in petitioners seeking lighter sentences.
“I’m not even sure how the court system could handle that (caseload) off the bat,” he said.
Nicole Beverly, a domestic violence survivor and victim advocate whose ex-husband threatened to kill her and her kids while in prison, told reporters Thursday her ex-husband would be eligible for resentencing under the legislation. In 2020, the man’s appeal of his conviction was denied by the state Court of Appeals.
But Beverly said she is still afraid of the possibility of him winning an appeal. And should that happen, she said, she would have to go into hiding immediately for her safety.
“I don’t know how much time I will have, and that disrupts my entire life and the entire life of my children,” she said.
Aiyash said the concerns that dangerous criminals would soon be released are a “red herring” and “disingenuous.” The bills would only afford inmates a chance to be re-sentenced — not giving them immediate freedom, he noted.
“My Republican colleagues just want to scream outrage and cry that there's this massive attempt to release a bunch of prisoners. It’s simply not true,” he told Bridge.
Locking people in prison for a long time does not necessarily keep communities safer, Aiyash said. The state should build a “restorative justice system” and give inmates a chance of redemption, he said.
“Justice also means that, are folks atoning for their mistakes? Are they paying the price for the mistakes? And then once they pay the price, have they shown a change in who they are and what they've done? And can they be a more productive person in society?”
Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit is also proposing bills to allow certain inmates to earn “productivity credits” toward early release through educational or vocational programs and become eligible.
The bill package would effectively reverse a voters-approved law in 1978, which required inmates eligible for parole to complete their minimum sentence before being considered for parole, according to a nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency analysis. The package would require a nod from three-quarters of the state Legislature, the agency concluded.
Carter argued earlier during a committee hearing earlier this week the legislation is “common sense policy” that incentivizes good behaviors and could help rehabilitate inmates for society.
“The question we must ask ourselves as lawmakers is simple: Did we prepare them to return to their families and their communities not just with an education, but with a work ethic and mentality to stay focused and disciplined to work towards a goal and complete it?” he asked during the hearing.
“Will they come out safer and less likely to commit crimes than they did when they went in?”
The package was also introduced last year by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
This year, the package is spearheaded exclusively by Democrats, but has received support from some conservative groups, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Conservative Union CPAC.
Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is also opposed to the legislation, The Detroit News reported.
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