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Group seeking to restore 'good time' prison credits derailed by faulty signature count

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A ballot committee seeking to restore “good time” prison credits in Michigan has stopped its legal effort challenging the state’s signature collection threshold after realizing the group had far fewer signatures than it originally reported to a federal judge. 

SawariMedia filed a notice to dismiss the case Thursday along with a declaration from the group’s leader, Amani Sawari, that amended earlier assertions indicating the group collected roughly 215,000 of the 347,047 signatures needed. 

It was not immediately clear how many signatures the group actually collected.

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.

Sawari said the group’s “decentralized,” grassroots approach to gathering signatures meant team members took “independent responsibility” for gathering and counting signatures, leading to an inaccurate count represented in court filings. 

“Although our campaign is still gathering and documenting the hard data in support of the initiative, and although I do not yet know the correct number of signatures, I believe the number is substantially less than the amount originally estimated,” Sawari wrote Wednesday.

Despite the voluntary dismissal, the case is not completely dead. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is considering pursuing an appeal of an earlier decision in the case because the lawsuit “presents important issues that are capable of repetition and should be decided by the court,” spokesman Ryan Jarvi said. 

Without a ruling from the courts placing the initiative on the November ballot, the initiative will not go before voters this year, said Saura Sahu, a lawyer for SawariMedia. 

“…the campaign continues for this worthy cause and the state still seems prepared to litigate the very worthy legal issues that pertain to all voters in the case,” Sahu said. 

Detroit U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman ruled last month that the state could not keep SawariMedia’s question off the November ballot for missing the signature threshold. He ordered the state to make its “own adjustments” to reduce the burden on ballot access because of the pandemic. 

“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 in the June ruling.

SawariMedia’s ballot initiative would overturn the state’s current “Truth in Sentencing” law that requires people sentenced to a range of years to serve nothing less than the minimum with no consideration for “good time” credits that could shorten prison time. 

The “Truth in Sentencing” law was put in place by a vote of the people in 1998.

The state has encountered pushback on its signature threshold amid the pandemic from other candidates, including Eric Esshaki, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District who was granted extra time to collect signatures and able to comply with a lower threshold of signatures. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com