Michigan House OKs criminal justice overhaul

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state House approved most bills in a Senate package that seeks to reduce the number ex-prisoners returning to prisons, saving the state money on its annual $2 billion corrections budget.

Most measures in the 21-bill package sailed through the state House. But Republican House leaders canceled the vote on one proposal after a GOP amendment drew opposition from Democrats who said it “gutted” a bill meant to encourage businesses to hire former prison inmates.

A similar bill package from the Senate failed to clear both the House and Senate last year.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have required employers to demonstrate they’ve been unable to fill a position for at least six months before the state would authorize financial incentives for companies willing to hire former prisoners. Whiteford said she proposed the amendment to make sure the state wasn’t giving “ex-cons a leg up” over other workers who hadn’t served prison sentences.

After the GOP approved the amendment, Democrats and some Republicans voted against the bill, and House Majority Leader Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway, canceled a vote on the measure before it could fail.

Gideon D’Assandro, House Speaker Tom Leonard’s spokesman, said the rest of the package can still go on with or without the bill.

House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said the six-month pause amendment doomed Democratic support because it would have “gutted” the legislation, rendering it ineffectual.

Overall, Singh called the package a “first step,” but it will set the stage for more changes.

For example, Singh said this year’s Senate package approved by the House didn’t include legislation to release medically frail prisoners on parole or put nonviolent offenders somewhere besides prison — two key reforms, he says, could “actually get to real cost savings within the Department of Corrections” so lawmakers could instead spend that money on roads or education.

But House Republicans say the plan does speed up the process to release medically frail prisoners.

The Senate passed a similar version of the package last year, but the House never held a vote on it because it had its own competing criminal justice plan.

A centerpiece of this year’s package is defining recidivism “for the first time in Michigan’s history” as the re-arrest, re-conviction or re-incarceration of someone who commits a crime or violates their probation or parole, said main bill sponsor Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph.

The package would impose penalties, including up to 30 days in jail, for parole violators and stop parole absconders from getting cash or food welfare assistance from Michigan. It would reduce punishments for technical probation violations and potentially allow some probationers to cut their state supervision period.

Another bill would require the Michigan Department of Corrections to hold prisoners 18 to 22 years old in cells apart from older adults.

“The House today passed an important series of reforms that creates a more effective and efficient corrections system in Michigan,” Leonard said in a statement.

“We eliminated outdated rules that punished people for technicalities and put them in prison unnecessarily. We embraced new rehabilitation programs and practices that will reduce the number of repeat offenders. We added measures to defend crime victims and protect families first. And we reopened the doors to charities and faith-based groups who want to get involved in prisoners’ lives and make a real difference that benefits us all.”

Proos said the overhaul includes “best practices from across the country” and signals “a fundamental shift from simply punishing criminals to correcting bad behavior and rehabilitating offenders.”

Other supporters of the legislation say the changes are improvements to the parole, probation and prison process and would make Michigan a leader in states working to overhaul their criminal justice systems.

“Sen. Proos marshaled the bills through both chambers — bills that will reduce recidivism, improve public safety and put a dent in the $2 billion the Department of Corrections spends annually,” said Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group lobbying for criminal justice reforms. “With other reforms on the horizon in the House and the Senate, we look forward to what the rest of the year has in store.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also praised the package in a statement Wednesday.

"Today’s passage by the House of the Senate criminal justice reform legislation is a positive step forward for Michigan,” Schuette said. “This legislation offers an opportunity to break the cycle of recidivism, promote public safety and protect our communities.”

The bills now go back to the Senate for a final concurrence vote before heading to Gov. Rick Snyder.


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Twitter: @MikeGerstein