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Michigan moves to limit ‘mandatory minimum’ sentences and license suspensions

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers are nearing completion on a series of reforms to keep people out of jail by eliminating “mandatory minimum” sentences for some low-level crimes and limiting automatic driver’s license suspensions.

House legislation approved by the Senate on Thursday would give judges discretion to shorten or suspend jail sentences for certain crimes, including driving offenses, an effort to reduce jail populations and encourage rehabilitation. 

A separate House package also approved by the Senate would repeal laws requiring the Michigan Secretary of State to suspend, revoke or refuse driver’s  licenses to people convicted of certain crimes, including low-level drug offenses and missed child support payments. 

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The legislation is "pretty significant" and is "definitely a step in the right direction toward dismantling mass incarceration and racial disparities here in Michigan," said Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel for the ACLU of Michigan.  

"These bills will allow law enforcement to focus resources on things that actually have some sort of public safety component.”

The proposals are the latest in a string of significant reforms advancing or approved by Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature, where criminal justice is a rare spot of consensus between Democrats and the conservative majority. 

After unanimous votes in the Senate on Thursday, House bills nearing Gov,. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk would eliminate mandatory-length jail sentences for various driving misdemeanors, including operating a vehicle while impaired or with a suspended license. 

Judges would have discretion to issue shorter sentences or suspend jail time altogether for violators who complete a specialty diversion program through a drug treatment or sobriety court. And that would likely reduce local government spending on county jails and probation services, according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency. 

A separate House package approved Thursday and heading to Whitmer’s desk would repeal laws currently requiring the Michigan Secretary of State to suspend, revoke or refuse driver’s licenses to people convicted of certain crimes.  

Michiganders convicted of low-level drug offenses would no longer automatically lose driving privileges, nor would those who fail to make child support payments on time. 

The legislation is based on recommendations from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which found that automatic license suspensions and penalties for driving without a suspended license contributed to disproportionate jailing of African Americans.

Black men make up 6 percent of the state's population but account for 29 percent of all jail admissions, according to data from the task force, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. “Black people of all genders are more likely to be jailed for driving without a license,” according to the report.

"One of the things that we've seen with both traffic offenses and driving without a valid license, is that a lot of times for a first offense, somebody will have to pay a ticket," Buddin said. 

"Unfortunately, in low-income communities, which are often communities of color, people can't afford to do that and have to choose between paying for food for their family, or putting gas in their vehicle so they can go to work, or paying a traffic ticket, or paying to reinstate their driver's license."

In 2018, the most recent year of records available, nearly 358,000 licenses were suspended in Michigan for failure to appear and failure to pay fines and fees, according to the task force report, which stated that suspensions can have a "domino effect"  and lead to other problems for violators. 

"To reduce jail admissions for driving with a suspended license and remove barriers to workforce reentry, licenses should only be suspended or revoked when the holder has been convicted of an offense directly related to driving safety," the task force recommended.

Driving without a valid license is the third most-common reason for jail admission in Michigan, and suspensions have been "overused as a punishment for a variety of offenses not directly tied to being a danger on the road," said Alex Rossman of the Michigan League for Public Policy. 

"The practice has actually made poverty the ‘offense’ most often being punished,” Rossman said in a statement.

Some of the bills approved Thursday were modified in the Senate, meaning the House will have to approve those changes before the full package heads to Whitmer.

The Michigan House cancelled session this week due to COVID-19 concerns but is expected to resume floor votes next week during its last planned meetings of the so-called lame-duck session. 

The fate of a related proposal to reform the state’s cash bail system is unclear after a planned hearing in the House Judiciary Committee was cancelled this week.

A Senate package awaiting final approval in the House would direct police to issue citations instead of make arrests in some cases, encourage probation-only sentences for low-level misdemeanors and allow offenders off probation early if they meet key deadlines.

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