Opinion: Michigan’s opportunity to right a wrong in the criminal justice system

Steve Johnson

A fundamental role of government is to safeguard our rights to life and liberty.

Yet, in extremely unfortunate situations, government itself violates these rights. That is exactly what happens when individuals are sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.

These errors have interrupted the lives of people like Richard Phillips, who spent more than 45 years in prison after a wrongful conviction. Phillips recently joined me in testifying before the House Appropriations Committee where he told his story of being imprisoned for over four decades after a wrongful conviction.

He informed the committee that when someone who is wrongfully convicted is exonerated of their crime and released from prison, they are not eligible for many of the services that other prisoners receive when leaving prison.

Prison Bars

In an effort to help out those who were wrongfully convicted and compensate them for the injustice done to them (not that we can ever repay them), state law requires they be compensated $50,000 for every year they were wrongfully locked up.

The House Fiscal Agency reports that as of earlier this year there were 39 wrongful imprisonment claims made against the state that had not received compensation as outlined under terms of the state law approved in 2016.

The fund to pay for these claims – called the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Fund -- is essentially bankrupt. That is why I sponsored House Bill 4286 – a plan approved by the state House and state Senate.

The legislation will quickly provide $10 million for this fund until a more permanent solution can be addressed in next year’s state budget. The bill also ensures the Legislature will receive regular updates about the fund’s status – including its balance and outstanding claims – so this dire financial situation never happens again.

Governments and judicial systems are not perfect. They are, after all, comprised of imperfect individuals.

But as a Detroit News editorial recently pointed out – if the state itself was owed a debt by a taxpayer, it would quickly move to collect the amount due. We should expect the state to do the same when the roles are reversed.

House Bill 4286 provides an opportunity for us to right a wrong – and to restore the government’s role as the protector of individual rights. In an age of bitter partisanship, this legislation passed unanimously in the Legislature. We must see this plan through to the finish line with approval from Whitmer.

State Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, represents the 72nd District.