Opinion: Leveraging my checkered past to improve Michigan's future
It surprised a lot of people when I was arrested in 2010 for driving while under the influence of alcohol. My second arrest just four months later — and in violation of my probation — made national news.
While my crimes were not sensational, they garnered media attention because of my high-profile role as the former speaker of the House of Representatives in Michigan. I had also recently helped Mitt Romney launch his presidential campaign.
Many people who read the articles about me and spoke out against me in the court made it clear that they had written me off — that I wouldn’t come back from what happened in my life.
Miraculously, what happened has been quite different.
I’ve been sober for more than nine years, allowing me to be a husband and father. And for the last eight years, I’ve led the advocacy and public policy work of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners and a leading advocate for criminal justice reform.
I learned things through my battle with alcoholism and recovery I had not learned as a policymaker. I went through arrest and experienced firsthand our state’s pretrial, jail and probation systems. Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, folks like me are now using their experience to improve Michigan’s pretrial and jail system. I’m grateful to leverage my past to help keep communities safe and move people toward sobriety as I serve on the state’s new Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.
The task force has been hosting open meetings and taking public testimony across our state this year. The group is led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Chief Justice Mary McCormack. Attorney General Dana Nessel is on the panel, as are judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, victims, police, legislators, formerly incarcerated people and leaders from counties across the state.
What we’ve learned is troubling.
The first and most important finding is that there is almost no coordinated data collection coming from the front lines of the justice system. How can we know what’s working and what isn’t if we aren’t keeping track of what we are doing with people’s lives in the first place?
Second, we learned the overuse of incarceration is starving sheriff’s offices of the resources they need to combat crime. Incarceration is the most expensive and least effective tool in any government’s arsenal. It should be reserved for removing people who pose a threat to others and to the community, not for every nonviolent offense — or as a warehouse for the addicted and mentally ill, which is related to our next finding.
Our county jails are serving as de facto mental health institutions. This became painfully clear when we looked at the data collected from Michigan counties by the Pew Foundation. In rural Michigan, nearly 34% of the people in the jails have a serious mental illness.
In my time with Prison Fellowship, I’ve helped more than 30 states overhaul their criminal justice systems. In every state where evidence-based reforms have been implemented, we’ve seen drops in crime, arrests, victimization, criminal justice costs and the overuse of incarceration.
While important, these facts and figures can’t illuminate the humane benefits of reforming our pretrial and jail system: the freedom experienced by a person like me who moves from addiction to sobriety, and the hope of breaking out of a cycle of crime and incarceration.
God has never made a throwaway person — in fact, each one of us bear his image. My prayer is that Michigan puts policies in place that treat men and women charged with or convicted of a crime with dignity and helps many more of them turn toward recovery, success and responsibility.
Craig DeRoche is senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship. He is the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.