Opinion: Criminal justice reform strengthens families, communities

Doug DeVos and Robert Rooks
Reforms that promote rehabilitation, support successful reentry and make all Michiganians safer ought to draw broad support across our state, DeVos and Rooks write.

In recent years, Michigan has made needed progress on criminal justice policy reform thanks to strong bipartisan work by our elected officials. The data that brought diverse viewpoints together was clear and encouraged smart reforms to improve public safety and allow for redemption.

We’ve been particularly encouraged to see officials work together to reduce the number of people sent to prison for low-level and first-time offenses. We’ve cheered steps to ensure parole decisions are made objectively.

Now, there is more work to do.

Our voices — from the worlds of business, philanthropy and advocacy — are an example of the widespread engagement across the state and we’re hopeful elected officials will consider further change. There is great opportunity and we encourage action.

Our hope is that in the coming weeks in Lansing, state leaders will embrace the next generation of justice reforms — specifically returning individuals to rewarding and fulfilling work that can help to heal families and communities. There are several opportunities of note.

A bill (HB 4980) introduced in September by Rep. Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale, would expand employment, housing and other opportunities for people with past convictions by automatically setting aside, except for law enforcement purposes, old non-violent conviction records that meet set criteria. For those who have completed their rehabilitation and demonstrated a longstanding commitment to remaining crime-free, it is essential that we recognize their redemption and allow them to fully participate as productive members of society.

Setting aside convictions to expand access to employment will not only contribute to our state’s economy but, more importantly, strengthen families and communities. Their contributions can be meaningful and the opportunity offered to help address the state’s need for qualified workers could be significant.

Statistics show that nearly 90% of people who enter prison will one day return to our communities. When they do, they should return better than when they went in, not worse. Our representatives in Lansing can continue with strong leadership to help make this vision a reality.

Today, on average, people incarcerated in Michigan prisons for many offenses serve sentences that are 30 months longer than those served by people convicted of the same crimes in other states. Due in part to these extended sentences and the costs associated with them, Michigan spends one out of every five tax dollars from its general fund on its corrections system, a higher budgetary proportion than any other state spends.

By not offering incentives for rehabilitation and skill building, the state is not only wasting tax dollars, it is undermining public safety. Evidence shows that correctional interventions are most effective when they include strong incentives, such as rewarding participation in activities that reduce the likelihood of re-offending or engaging in vocational learning. States that have adopted these systems have cut their corrections costs and stabilized or reduced their recidivism rates resulting in safer communities and fewer victims of crime.

The approach is now widespread. At least 45 other states, including our neighbors in Indiana and Ohio, give people in prison an opportunity to earn sentence reductions by participating in rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs and abiding by prison rules.

Supporting the next smart reforms — which promote rehabilitation, support successful reentry and make all Michiganians safer — is something that should create consensus across our state.

Doug DeVos is the former chairman of the West Michigan Policy Forum and co-founder of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. Robert Rooks is the vice president and co-founder of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group based in California.