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Republicans and Democrats in Michigan will select their nominees to succeed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette at state party conventions this weekend.
Bridge Magazine asked GOP hopefuls — Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, the current House speaker, and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton — and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Plymouth attorney Dana Nessel, to detail their positions on two issues they will face if elected in November:
- The ongoing prosecution of state and local officials related to the Flint water crisis, and
- State criminal justice reform.
Schuitmaker was the only one of the three not to supply written answers to Bridge.
Nessel was endorsed by state Democrats at a party convention in April, though she isn’t expected to officially be named the party’s nominee until this weekend.Candidates’ answers are below. Some answers have been edited for grammar and length.
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QUESTION: You may inherit the Flint water criminal investigations regarding local and state officials. Do you agree with the decision to prosecute the current cases, and what would be your approach to prosecuting them?
Tom Leonard: The Flint water crisis was the result of critical government failures and awful decision-making by people who were trusted with the responsibility of looking after this community. Every single Michigan resident, and especially those living in Flint, deserves to know exactly what those failures were, how they happened and who was responsible. Michigan’s next attorney general must make answering those questions and achieving justice for the people of Flint top priorities.
Regarding my approach to prosecuting the ongoing criminal case, I know from firsthand experience there are many complicated factors that go into a criminal prosecution. I learned early in my career as a Genesee County prosecutor not to take lightly the role I played in bringing criminal charges against real people. I saw every day how important it is to review all the information available before making or second-guessing such a serious and long-lasting decision.
These are obviously difficult and complicated cases and, until I know all the facts available to the attorney general and his prosecutors, I cannot say for sure which changes in direction may be needed. That may not be the most provocative answer, but it is honest and true to how any rule-of-law attorney general should operate. Anyone with prosecution experience should feel the same way. Once I am able to see all the evidence available to prosecutors upon taking office, I will act swiftly to ensure justice is served.
Tonya Schuitmaker: Schuitmaker’s campaign did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.
She told Bridge in an interview during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in the spring that the Flint crisis was “a failure of government on all levels.” But she declined to discuss how she would approach the ongoing prosecution of state and local officials.
“I think it would be improper for me to comment on an ongoing investigation,” Schuitmaker told Bridge at the time, adding that doing so would go against “the code of conduct of an attorney.”
Dana Nessel: I have long been a critic of the way in which Bill Schuette has handled the Flint water crisis investigation and subsequent prosecutions. Schuette has never had any real interest in seeking justice for the residents of Flint. He is merely an opportunist who has used the crisis to further his political ambitions via a series of politically charged show trials.
Prosecutors should never be paid hourly, as this practice risks incentivizing the charging of unsustainable cases, filing frivolous motions and calling unnecessary witnesses to testify. Additionally, the appointed special prosecutor, Todd Flood, is a significant donor to both Schuette as well as to (Gov. Rick) Snyder, ostensibly one of the targets of the investigation. Schuette effectively recused the office of (attorney general) due to a “conflict of interest,” since the state of Michigan employs many of the defendants, then proceeded to appoint a special prosecutor with an even bigger conflict of interest. The state has now paid out (roughly) $25 million for attorneys’ fees in what can only be viewed as a mockery of the criminal justice system. The residents of Flint are no closer to obtaining justice, and the taxpayers of Michigan are considerably worse off.
As attorney general, I would create a firewall in the office to address any conflict of interest issues. I would hire assistant AGs who are true civil servants, experienced prosecutors or defense attorneys, with no financial self-interest in the charging or dismissal decision-making process. I would re-evaluate the investigation and any pending cases in their entirety, as the entire process has been highly suspect. If justice merits charging additional defendants, or dismissing pending cases, I would not hesitate to take such actions.
Question: Michigan spends roughly $2 billion per year on corrections. Do you believe Michigan’s criminal justice system needs to be reformed? If so, how should the system be changed to cut costs and decrease recidivism? If no, why not?
Tom Leonard: I have spent my entire career working hard to make our criminal justice system safer and stronger for all Michigan residents. That includes serious reforms on both the front end, to keep people from committing crimes, and on the back end, to help get them out of the system and back to being a productive member of society.
From the very beginning of my campaign, I have said I will be an attorney general with both an open heart for those in need and a jail cell for those who want to harm Michigan families. That includes working with local prosecutors and judges to expand Michigan’s wildly successful diversionary courts. We have expanded access to veterans’ courts, drug courts and mental health courts in the Legislature, and I was a part of Michigan’s very first drug court when I was a prosecutor in Genesee County. I have seen firsthand the difference these programs can make in people’s lives and how successfully they can help people in need re-transition back into society more safely than ever.
I will do everything I can as the state’s next attorney general to support mental health diversionary programs statewide and to partner with local communities who want to pursue smart reforms to keep people from falling through the cracks in our current system.
There is a direct link between unemployment and recidivism, which is why I have focused on reforms which rehabilitate offenders and help them get back to being productive members of society. I support expanding the “swift and sure” probation program to help people who struggle with the probation system find a structure that keeps them on a stable path. I have also spent years working across the aisle on legislation to expunge old criminal records and give people who are making an honest effort a real shot at getting their lives back on track. In Michigan, the attorney general, the local prosecutor and the victims all work together on expungement requests, and that is a large responsibility for whoever next holds that office.
Tonya Schuitmaker: Schuitmaker did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.
Her campaign website does not address her positions on whether or how Michigan’s criminal justice system should be reformed.
Dana Nessel: Republicans claim to be “tough on crime,” but they certainly have not been very smart on crime. Their policies are inhumane, costly and do nothing to enhance public safety.
A significant percentage of those who enter the criminal justice system are a product of the inability of Michigan residents to obtain proper treatment for various conditions. Many of these defendants suffer from mental illness, have addictions to drugs or alcohol or are veterans suffering from PTSD. As Michigan Attorney General, I would vigorously advocate for specialized mental health courts, sobriety courts, drug courts and veterans’ courts in every jurisdiction. These specialty diversion courts allow defendants to be diverted away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.
I would work with the Legislature and governor’s office to advocate for an amendment of the expungement laws. This would allow expungements of crimes under the Motor Vehicle Code and for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes following the passage of legalization for recreational marijuana via Proposal 1.
I would establish a Conviction Integrity Unit to work with local prosecutors and nonprofit organizations, such as the Michigan Innocence Clinic, to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction.
I will create a Police Conduct Review Team, which can work with local prosecutors to investigate and, if circumstances require it, take civil action or proceed on criminal prosecutions against members of law enforcement who infringe upon the rights of community members.
I will advocate for the funding of better job training and education programs within the (Michigan Department of Corrections) and for parolees once they exit prison. Bail bond reform efforts in Michigan are an essential overhaul to the criminal justice system which are desperately needed.