How to get criminal justice reform right

Craig DeRoche

At age 34, I was elected speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, faced with statewide budget deficits and workforce crises.

No one outside my inner circle knew I had my own crisis brewing: an addiction to alcohol.

I didn’t drink most days I was in state office, but my alcoholism damaged my life, family, and friends. It wasn’t until I left office that I hit a point low enough for me to recognize the severity of my situation and enter recovery: I was arrested twice.

My brushes with the law opened my eyes. I learned that most of the men and women working on the front lines of law enforcement, courts, and, the probation and parole system want people to be held accountable — and succeed so they never come back. These public servants do the best they can amid broken institutions, designed by legislators (like me) lacking firsthand knowledge.

My arrests not only put me on a path to recovery and restored relationships, they also gave me new purpose. At a conference, I met the late Chuck Colson, whose own disgrace and subsequent redemption led him to found Prison Fellowship in 1976. I now lead the Fellowship’s efforts to advocate for justice that restores. We work with elected leaders and diverse coalitions to advance reforms that value people and protect public safety. We are in the midst of a nationwide awakening to the damage caused by failed policies and the great potential of evidence-based, effective reform.

In Michigan, there is a lot of work to do. We have one of the nation’s leading voices on criminal justice reform in State Senator John Proos, R-St. Joseph, who introduced legislation to reform sentencing and improve the rehabilitative capacity of prisons. These bills, which have bipartisan support, would make communities safer by bringing men and women home better prepared to be good citizens.

Two other bills would make the parole system safer and smarter, and would stop the practice of automatically charging 17-year-olds as adults.

The legislation would give the parole board appropriate accountability measures to ensure that more people who can safely rejoin the community can do so sooner, reducing the financial and human costs of incarceration, while still protecting the public.

Legislation to raise the age at which young people are tried as adults is also critical. Youth in adult prisons have reduced access to age-appropriate resources, increasing their likelihood of recidivism, and endangering communities. By contrast, judges who preside over juvenile courts have a wider variety of avenues to keep young people engaged with their families and communities. We must refuse to write off young people before they have matured, a principle in line with the intent of our criminal justice system: hold people accountable, ensuring they repay their debt, while equipping them for a productive life.

Confronting the mistakes of my past helped me move into a restored, purposeful life. Michigan can do the same by moving toward a safer, more restorative, more cost-effective way of administering justice. We must design criminal justice reforms that protect communities while affirming our highest values as Michiganians.

Craig DeRoche is senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship. He joins a panel discussion today at the Michigan Capitol on the state’s treatment of youth in its adult criminal justice system.