Michigan Senate leader 'sees no need' to continue criminal justice reform panel

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state commission tasked with analyzing criminal justice policy and recommending changes to the laws affecting sentencing, recidivism and incarceration held its last meeting Wednesday.

Republican legislative leaders will not extend a Sept. 30 sunset in the law that created the Criminal Justice Policy Commission within the Legislative Council in 2015.

“You have the most talented, brightest minds of the state, from all different facets — sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers — you have people that are involved with the treatment of individuals,  sitting around a table to make the system a better place,” said Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, who represents the Senate on the commission alongside Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit.

Members of the Criminal Justice Policy Committee hold their last meeting Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Lansing after House and Senate leaders decided not to extend the sunset for the group's dissolution.

Lucido and Santana said they would like to see the commission's lifespan extended. 

"This commission is very important to continuing the conversation around criminal justice reform," said Santana, who gave the example of the panel's analysis of arrest rates among young black men in Wayne County.

"When you look at how we have so many people returning back to incarceration, and oftentimes it's because of offenses that happened many years ago that have no relevance to their current offenses," she said. 

In August, bills were introduced to extend the commission's Sept. 30 sunset and referred to the House and Senate Government Operations committees, which were chaired then by House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. The bills were not taken up in committee.

“This was a decision that only they can answer for you,” Lucido said.

The sunset has been extended once already and will not be extended again, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

“The majority leader sees no need, given that Sen. Lucido is the chair of the Judiciary (Committee),” McCann said. “The group has provided the Legislature with recommendations and information to consider. At this time, we’d like to process that information and we’ll go from there.”

The Legislature has other commissions and reform initiatives better-suited to tackle issues relevant to the Legislature's policy agenda, said Chatfield spokesman Gideon D'Assandro.

He mentioned as an example the newly formed Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, a bipartisan task force partnering with Pew Charitable Trusts to study Michigan's incarceration trends. 

"That task force and other commissions are in better positions to do work that can have a better impact," D'Assandro said. 

The commission initially was charged with examining the state's sentencing standards and their work was used to inform discussions on Raise the Age, D'Assandro said. Roughly $500,000 was appropriated to the commission at its creation in 2015, he said. 

Rep. Beau LaFave, a member of the commission, also referred questions regarding the reason for the commission's dissolution to House and Senate leadership. The Iron Mountain Republican said he’d like to see the continuation of the commission, which he considered “bipartisan” and “effective.”

“I think that we are at the edge of getting some momentous change,” said LaFave, who represents the House on the commission alongside Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit.

Since its formation, the group has analyzed state data and produced reports on issues ranging from the cost of raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, to the link between state sentencing guidelines and sentencing disparities, to better legal definitions of recidivism and parole and probation violations.

Michigan could be a leader “in implementing evidence-based crime policy,” the commission's chairwoman Amanda Burgess-Proctor said in a July letter to legislators urging the continuation of the commission.

“Given the opportunity to continue its work, the CJPC is poised to play a key role in making that opportunity a reality,” wrote Burgess-Proctor, an April appointee of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The letter to legislators was signed by members of commission representing counties, judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, the Michigan Department of Corrections, the Attorney General’s office, the Senate and House of Representatives. It was supported by 11 stakeholder groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

After a lengthy discussion on sentencing disparities at its last meeting Wednesday, Burgess-Proctor thanked all of the members at the table.

“Conversations like this with divergent viewpoints and stakeholders who bring different viewpoints and expertise — this is how good policy gets made,” Burgess-Proctor said.