New law means less prison for repeat drug offenders

Michael Gerstein

Lansing — Those convicted of multiple drug offenses may see lighter sentences under legislation signed by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley Thursday as lawmakers continue changing state laws that led to long prison terms at a high cost to taxpayers.

A three-bill package signed by Calley while Gov. Rick Snyder is out of state eliminates a mandatory life sentence without parole for repeat drug offenses involving narcotics or cocaine. It also allows a person convicted of certain drug offenses to be eligible for parole after serving five years for that sentence.

Critics of the state’s drug laws have argued that Michigan has some of the nation’s harshest penalties for drug offenses.

In 1978, the state adopted a “650-lifer law” — the law under which White Boy Rick Wershe was convicted — which mandates life in prison without parole for manufacturing and delivering 650 grams or more of cocaine.

The law “filled prisons with low-level drug pushers and users,” according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of the legislation. The option for parole was later introduced in 1998 for those who served a minimu of 20 years in prison for life sentences, and a package of bills in 2002 scrapped most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, according to the same fiscal agency analysis.

The 48-year-old Wershe was granted parole earlier this year after nearly 30 years in prison but is serving prison time in Florida on a separate conviction.

But mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole remained intact for a second or subsequent conviction until now.

“By implementing criminal justice reforms geared toward being smart on crime, instead of the old ‘lock ’em up’ mentality, we are giving people more chances to be productive members of our state in the future,” Calley said in a statement.

Four prisoners remain locked up under the “650-lifer law,” according to the analysis.

That includes John Sellors, who is serving a double life sentence without parole eligibility for a second offense at the Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson for offenses involving 51 grams of cocaine. He has served 17 years in prison, but his commutation requests were denied, according to the House Fiscal Agency analysis.

The legislation was backed in committee by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, American Conservative Union Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and other organizations. No groups submitted arguments against the bills. The Michigan Department of Corrections was neutral.

Calley also signed three bills Thursday to require criminal background checks and fingerprint samples to work at child care centers, family child care homes and group care homes.

About 85,000 people would have to be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks, according to an House Fiscal Agency analysis that said the bills would have “an indeterminate” cost in the state.

“The safety of our children is a top priority, and this legislation ensures we have the best safety standards in our child care facilities,” Calley said in a statement.