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Judge revives ballot initiative seeking to reinstate 'good time' prison credits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A federal judge has ruled the state of Michigan cannot exclude from the November ballot a proposed initiative by a civil rights organization seeking to restore “good time” credits so prisoners can get early release for good behavior. 

Detroit U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman ruled Thursday that the state could not keep SawariMedia’s petition off this year's ballot based on the group's missing the signature threshold. Leitman ordered the state to select its “own adjustments” to reduce the burden on ballot access because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amani Sawari, 31, drops off petitions in the mail at Lathrup Village Post Office to supporters for a ballot initiative to restore "good time" credits to the prison system for early release of prisoners.

It is not yet clear what changes Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office will make to accommodate SawariMedia’s ballot initiative. The state is reviewing the ruling, said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson's office.

On May 27, the deadline for submission SawariMedia was more than 100,000 signatures short of the required 347,047 valid signatures required. The group asked the federal court for relief from the requirement in light of the state’s far-reaching stay-at-home order meant to prevent against COVID-19 spread.  

Leitman granted the request, ruling restrictions on signature gathering in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic have made it nearly impossible to collect the signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. 

“Plaintiffs should be commended for putting the public health of Michiganders above their own self-interest and desire to collect the required number of signatures, not denigrated for making that conscientious choice,” Leitman wrote.

More:Judge revives ballot initiative seeking to reinstate 'good time' prison credits

The state’s current “Truth in Sentencing” law requires that individuals sentenced to a range of years serve nothing less than the minimum regardless of “good time” credits earned in jail. Good time credits were eliminated and “Truth in Sentencing” took its place by a vote of the people in 1998.

The ballot initiative seeks to reverse state law again and would enact instead the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, restoring “good time” credits for good behavior in the state prison system. 

Leitman referenced several times in his Thursday decision the case of Eric Esshaki, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District recently granted extra time to collect signatures as well as a lower bar for the number of signatures gathered. Esshaki had sued the state, arguing the signature-gathering requirements during the coronavirus pandemic were an unconstitutional burden. 

Like Esshaki, SawariMedia “faced a daunting signature requirement with a firm deadline in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Leitman wrote.

SawariMedia had roughly 13 days to collect signatures before the stay-at-home order was put in place. Afterward, the group said it attempted to mail petitions to supporters but the effort was both cost-prohibitive and inefficient. 

The inability to collect signatures was not solely due to the pandemic, but the stay-at-home orders preventing signature gathering, Leitman wrote. 

The state failed to show "that their enforcement of the signature requirement and filing deadline are narrowly tailored to the present circumstances," Leitman said. And, because of that, "those requirements cannot survive a strict scrutiny analysis as applied to plaintiffs."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com