Ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: Let prisoners earn time off their sentences
It's a theme the former politician is well-suited to promoting, after his stint in prison for corruption crimes
By Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News
PONTIAC, Mich. — Kwame Kilpatrick urged reform of Michigan's criminal justice system Sunday while expressing the life-saving value of hope as part of a growing number of public appearances made by the former Detroit mayor following his own prison release last year.
Kilpatrick joined faith leaders and congregants at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church as well as Alice Marie Johnson, a formerly incarcerated criminal justice reform activist, to encourage attendees to sign what is known as the "Good Time" ballot initiative on Redemption Sunday, which churches across Metro Detroit celebrated.
It's a theme the former Detroit mayor is well-suited to promoting, after his stint in prison for corruption crimes. While expressing gratitude for Johnson and New Bethel pastor Keyon Payton, who spearheaded the successful campaign to get Kilpatrick's 28-year sentence commuted by former President Donald Trump, Kilpatrick said he understood that advocating for incarcerated people was difficult, but it was imperative that they be given hope for redemption.
"I know how tough it was, and I know that the full weight of the entire state was talking about that man," said Kilpatrick, referring to himself in the third person after acknowledging that at the time, he was "public enemy No. 1."
If approved, the initiative would give people incarcerated in Michigan Department of Corrections prisons the opportunity to reduce their sentences through productive activity prior to their releases, such as college classes, anger management, rehabilitation from substance abuse and credit for being a veteran.
Anyone with an out-date would qualify to earn credits.
The initiative, launched by the Liberty & Justice for All Coalition and co-organized by Michigan Liberation, was submitted in December to the State of Michigan Board of Canvassers, which approved a retroactive ballot initiative to circulate and collect signatures.
In 2020, 33,618 people were incarcerated in MDOC prisons, according to the agency's most recent report. The department did not respond to a request for comment.
Kilpatrick, 51, continues to be among Detroit's most controversial figures. The scion of a once powerful and politically connected family, Kilpatrick served as a state lawmaker in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1997 to 2002.
In 2001, he became the youngest person elected as mayor of Detroit. He served from 2002 before resigning in September 2008 after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
In 2013, he was sentenced on two dozen counts for his role in a racketeering and bribery scheme while in public office and was released from a minimum-security federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, in 2021 after serving seven years.
The 28-year sentence tied Ohio county politician Jimmy Dimora for the longest federal prison sentence for a public official in U.S. history.
Kilpatrick and contractor Bobby Ferguson were convicted following a six-month trial when a federal jury found they turned City Hall into a "money-making machine," squeezing millions of dollars out of government contracts and spending the money on luxury lifestyles.
Trump reduced his sentence before he left office but Kilpatrick's 24 felony convictions stand. He was on the hook for $195,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and $1.5 million to Detroit.
At the time of his release, Payton said of Kilpatrick's sentence that 28 years were "far too long."
"Everyone deserves a second chance," said Payton, a sentiment he echoed Sunday.
In June 2021, Kilpatrick made a triumphant return to the city when he took the pulpit to shouts of “Kwame!” and “We love you, Kwame!” to deliver a sermon that drew standing ovations.
He thanked churchgoers for praying for him and spoke about the importance of second chances.
Kilpatrick married his fiancée, LaTicia Kilpatrick, in July, six months after leaving prison, and announced that she was pregnant with their second son together — his fifth overall — in January.
At a news conference in March, Kilpatrick announced the Good Time initiative and stressed the need for educational and vocational programs that exist in federal facilities to be introduced in Michigan.
"People in federal prison believe that they can get out, so they take programs to make sure that they can reduce their time," he said in March.
Michigan is one of 11 states in the country that have neither earned time nor "good time" laws in place for their prison population, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with several states having one or the other.
Earned time is a credit against a sentence that a person earns for participation in productive activities, and “good time” credits are given for following prison rules and participating in required activities.
Being in that minority of states puts Michigan "out of step with the rest of the country," said John Duckworth, pastor of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church.
"If we are to be true to our faith, we must open the bridge of reconciliation and redemption when one has seen the errors of their ways," said Duckworth, who is part of the coalition that launched the initiative.
Johnson, whose sentence of life plus 20 years was commuted by Trump in 2018 after she had been incarcerated for 21 years, spoke Sunday to the full church in front of two large photos of herself on the day she was released from prison, dressed in white, with her arms outstretched to the sky and a large smile on her face.
There is an absence of justice in not allowing people to work toward good time, Johnson said.
"We're not saying that people should commit crimes and have nothing ever happen or face no consequences. That too would not be justice,” she said. “But what's not justice is to say that ... you are not redeemable. It’s to say that they’re not human.”
Payton, when announcing the initiative, spoke about using evidence-based programs, like the ones the initiative's supporters hope to introduce to Michigan prisons, to "restore dignity and humanity in our nation's criminal justice systems," saying that it was a "moral responsibility" to give people a chance to redeem their past mistakes.
"We can not only get inmates the real help that is needed to help them heal from root-causing traumas that often lead to incarceration," Payton said. "But we know we can also equip them with the soft, technical and other skills to help build a healthy workforce upon their release."
Charles Thomas, who at a resource fair after the service signed the Good Time petition as well as petitions to expand voter access and raise the state’s minimum wage, said he believed the initiative would reduce recidivism and reduce the cost of incarceration to taxpayers.
“If incarcerating doesn't do something to change the minds of the incarcerated, and equip them while they're there, then that is the thing that makes the communities more dangerous,” said Thomas, 62, of Southfield.