Mich. House approves bill to establish group to review state’s correctional practices
The group would analyze data on the state’s prison populations, recidivism rates, sentence proportionality and sentencing disparities
By Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
LANSING, Mich. − Michigan House lawmakers voted along party lines Wednesday to approve a bill creating a 15-member sentencing commission that would study data related to the state’s correctional practices to determine whether modifications are needed in sentencing guidelines.
The group, under the legislation, would analyze data on sentencing, and release policies and practices in Michigan, including data on the state’s prison populations, recidivism rates, sentence proportionality, sentencing disparities and the overall appropriateness of Michigan’s sentencing guidelines.
Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the Hamtramck Democrat who sponsored the legislation, noted that nearly every other state has a group studying sentencing practices while Michigan hasn’t had a centralized commission studying the issue in more than 30 years. That’s in spite of the fact that the state puts more people away for longer durations than other neighboring states, Aiyash said, and spends more money on its prison system.
“Putting someone in prison is a serious and expensive undertaking − and it’s important we are taking this serious task responsibly,” he said in a statement. He noted the state’s attitude toward certain drug offenses has become less punitive over the past few decades and its scrutiny of crimes like domestic violence more heightened.
“These need to be examined through a serious, thoughtful, and evidence-based process free from the political theatrics of the Legislature,” he said.
The legislation had some initial support from Republicans, but the minority withdrew its support last week when the bills were rewritten to allow Democrats over the commission members are chosen for the review. Rep. Luke Meerman, a Coopersville Republican who sponsored one of the bills, removed himself as sponsor on the House floor Wednesday.
Rep. Graham Filler, R-St. Johns, said Republicans were hoping to see a balanced representation of Democratic and Republican appointees, arguing that a Democrat-heavy commission would lead to sentencing guidelines overly sympathetic toward the offender. Lawmakers, Filler said, are more than capable of meeting with stakeholders to examine and address potential changes to sentencing practices.
“I don’t see the need to create this big bureaucratic framework to then send back bills which inevitably will say we need to let individuals out of prison earlier,” Filler said.
The commission would consist of an individual with a background in criminal law appointed by the governor to serve as chair; the attorney general or her designee; the Department of Corrections director or her designee; two Senators and two House members, one from each party; two circuit court judges; one law enforcement officer, one prosecutor; one defense lawyer, one individual with a victim services agency, one previously incarcerated individual and one individual working in mental and behavioral health. The minority party, aside from two of their legislative members, would be able to pick just two other appointees.
The chair, attorney general, department director, previously incarcerated individual and mental health expert would be nonvoting members.
The commission would prepare sentencing change recommendations for the Legislature, with information on how prison populations would be impacted, the types of individuals being sentenced to longer or shorter terms, the “effectiveness of criminal sanctions as measured against their purposes,” and how judicial discretion might be preserved while also providing uniform sentencing criteria.
The commission would need to submit a report annually to the Michigan Supreme Court, the Legislature and the governor on which legislative policies were adopted, how they are being implemented, and what the consequences have been of those changes.
The commission, according to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency, is similar to a sentencing commission in operation between 1994 and 2002 and a criminal justice policy commission in operation between 2015 and 2019. The latter 2015-2019 commission focused on the effect of legislation redirecting 17-year-olds from adult courts to the juvenile justice system.
The annual cost for the criminal justice policy commission was $150,000 a year, plus a $500,000 one-time cost for setting up the commission. The cost of the sentencing commission is not yet clear.
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