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Three prison reform ideas drawing bipartisan support

The prison reform movement in Michigan – and across much of the nation – is one of the rare issues in this contentious era that attracts support from individuals, public officials and organizations with a wide variety of agendas and political views.

Among the voices calling for changes to laws and practices that have made Michigan a leader in locking up its own citizens – at the cost of some $2 billion a year -- are Gov. Rick Snyder; the Detroit-based American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; the free-market think tank Mackinac Center, as well as Joe Haveman, a former member of the state House from Holland, one of the most conservative areas of Michigan.

Until he left office in 2015, Haveman, a Republican, led the prison-reform effort in the Republican-controlled state legislature, and he continues to advocate for change as the director of government relations for the Hope Network, a nonprofit organization that deals with behavioral health care and neuro-rehabilitation.

“Michigan is behind a lot of states in corrections’ reform,” Haveman said. “There’s so much to work on. One question is, ‘Do you have the courage to produce real reform?’ Recognizing we led the country in a lot of respects in toughening our corrections stance for the last 30 years.”

Michael Reitz of the Mackinac Center noted the odd bedfellows nature of the prison reform coalition.

“The Mackinac Center and ACLU, for example, don’t often agree on policy recommendations,” he has written, “but we have proudly partnered on” programs to end civil asset forfeiture and criminal intent legislation, which says the severity of punishment for a crime should be related to the defendant’s intent.

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In a special message to the legislature last year on criminal justice reform, Snyder, a Republican, called for, among other things, addressing the root societal causes of criminal behavior, a theme often associated with liberal Democrats in the past

Here are three areas of criminal justice that have received widespread bipartisan support:

Prisoner re-entry: Easing life for former prisoners who have served their time can take many forms, such as “banning the box,” which eliminates from job applications questions about an applicant’s criminal past. That’s the law in some states and major cities. Detroit, for instance, bans city contractors from asking about prior convictions.

Sentencing: Michigan several years ago moderated its infamous “650 grams lifer law” that sentenced defendants to life without parole for possessing 650 grams (1.4 pounds) of such drugs as cocaine and heroin. There are many calls now to adjust sentences, especially for non-violent crimes and petty offenses such as writing bad checks, breaking into parking meters or parole violations. Seeking alternatives to prison for substance abuse and mental health problems is also gaining support.

The Mackinac Center notes Michigan has 3,100 crimes on the books, some of which, it says, are used to regulate the behavior of well-intentioned people and impose severe consequences on actions that most people don’t consider wrong. The ACLU supports the Michigan Legislative Council’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission, created by the Legislature in 2014, which is analyzing information on state and local sentencing and proposed release policies.

Elderly prisoners: It costs Michigan much more to keep people over 65 in prison than it does younger inmates, and there is wide agreement that most senior prisoners no longer present a threat to society. “We could save millions of dollars” by removing older prisoners from the Department of Corrections, Haveman says.

Heather Ann Thompson, the University of Michigan history professor and national expert on mass incarceration, says the nation is in the beginning stages of rethinking its prison policies.

“One of the most interesting things that has happened since I’ve been working on this is the bipartisan discussion for the need for criminal justice reform. And I am all for it. But I will say I’m also cautious about it and also feel the need to continually state that part one is agreeing that we need to stop this and end the crisis.

“Part two, though, is to decide what we do instead. What do we do to make sure that people don’t end up in these positions where they are having to sell drugs, or where they are no longer educated. We’re going to have to invest in our cities, were going to have to invest in our infrastructure, and sadly, that’s where a lot of the bipartisan support seems to fall away. You know, we don’t have as much support for taxation that would be needed to pay for schools, to pay for job training. And so I’m optimistic, but I’m also deeply cautious about how far the bipartisan moment will go.”


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