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'Good time' prison reform push well short on signatures for Michigan ballot

outside of a jail
Organizers have collected fewer than 16,000 of a required 356,958 signatures needed to put a “good time” prison reform plan on the Michigan ballot. (Shutterstock)
  • Proposal to allow Michigan inmates to reduce their sentences through good behavior is short signatures to make ballot
  • Advocates now turning to the Legislature, where similar efforts have stalled amid concerns
  • There is some bipartisan support for productivity credits, a different early release option, but progress is slow

An initiative to create a “good time” credit system for Michigan prisoners is unlikely to make it to the 2024 ballot, but organizers haven’t given up hope on appealing their cause to the Democratic-majority Legislature.

Backers of the early prison release option for good behavior have collected roughly 15,700 signatures since the Michigan Board of State Canvassers gave them the go-ahead to begin circulating petitions last summer.

That’s far short of the 356,958 needed to qualify for ballot consideration.


Michigan Justice Advocacy, the group spearheading the petition drive, plans to continue collecting signatures through April 30. However, Jack Wagner, the group's president, described the task as “a daunting, almost insurmountable task for a volunteer-driven organization to achieve.”


Advocates are instead setting their sights on the Legislature, where other efforts to offer early release as an incentive for positive behavior in prison have stalled amid legal questions and lingering concerns

“We're continuing to talk to our legislators about the idea of a good time bill,” Wagner said. “Some of the modifications that we've been looking at could address some of those who are currently on the fence or even opposed to the language the way it exists today.”

Proponents have championed good time and other early-release options, such as “productivity credits” allowing shorter sentences for prisoners who complete educational or vocational programs, as necessary reforms that give prisoners incentive to change their lives.  

But critics fear allowing early release programs would cut into existing protections for crime victims and leave open the chance of shorter sentences for prisoners serving time for violent crimes. 

Recent rollbacks of broad criminal justice reform efforts in states like New York and Oregon have also given some Michigan officials pause. 

“Just speaking frankly, this is not an attractive political bill for many individuals,” Rep. Graham Filler, R-St. Johns, said of the efforts. 

The good time proposal

Michigan Justice Advocacy’s good time initiative proposes subtracting 30 days from a prisoner’s sentence for every 30 days the person doesn't commit serious misconduct, like fighting or keeping contraband. 

In theory, the plan would allow inmates with perfect records to slice their minimum sentences in half, although parole boards would retain discretion. Only inmates serving life sentences would be ineligible under the original proposal. 

But existing bans on such practices present roadblocks. 

A 1978 ballot initiative ended Michigan’s previous credit system for good behavior for most prison inmates. The state’s Truth In Sentencing law signed in 1998 by then-Gov. John Engler went further, requiring all incarcerated people to serve their mandatory minimum sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

Reversing the 1978 initiative would require approval from three-fourths of Michigan lawmakers, a tough task in a Legislature split nearly down the middle politically. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has also been forthright with concerns about undermining the Truth in Sentencing law. 

To secure legislative support, Wagner said he is open to modifications, including expanding the list of misconducts that count against early release and introducing a graduated system that reduces good time options for repeat offenders. 

The goal, he said, is to reduce mass incarceration while offering inmates incentives to reform, adding that advocates will continue to educate lawmakers and the public about the issue. 

“This would raise the bar, so to speak, so that truly, you have to earn good time,” he said. “It's not just a free get out of jail card — the people who are working towards betterment actually really have to work hard at it.” 

Another option: Productivity credits

A separate effort to allow parole boards to consider reduced minimum prison sentences if eligible inmates complete educational or vocational programs has more bipartisan traction — but even that concept could prove an uphill battle in the Legislature. 

Legislation introduced by Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, would allow eligible inmates to knock off up to 20 percent of their minimum prison sentences by completing educational or vocational programs if their parole boards agree. 

“We have an opportunity to change or reimagine how we look at public safety, criminal justice systems, and how we look at outcomes,” Carter previously told Bridge Michigan.

Democratic leadership pressed pause on planned hearings for that package last fall after some House Democrats expressed concerns. 

Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, told Bridge Tuesday that lawmakers are still working on the legislation. But they’re “not necessarily diving right into it” due to the complexity and controversial nature of the issue, she said.

At least 30 states offer productivity credits in some capacity, according to the Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit supporting justice reform and prison programs.


Advocates for the change argue that offering educational incentives for prisoners would not only result in lower recidivism rates and higher employment rates post-incarceration, but also save the state significant money long-term.  

“For every dollar that a state spends on these programs, you offset between $1.60 and $3.10 in future costs to lock someone away,” said David Guenthner, vice president of government affairs for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. 

Guenthner believes there’s wide bipartisan support for productivity credits in the Legislature, but he’s concerned that introducing good time into the mix could muddy the waters and complicate the argument for productivity credits.

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