Whitmer signs bills aiming to shift away from jail as punishment for traffic offenses in Michigan

20-bill package prioritizes alternatives to jail when offenders aren’t threat to public

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a 20-bill package aiming to reshape penalties for traffic offenses on Jan. 4, 2020. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed a 20-bill package that aims to shift away from using jail and arrests as punishment for traffic offenses unless someone is a danger to the public.

The bipartisan package of criminal justice reform bills resulted from recommendations by the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, according to the state.

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“As a former prosecutor, I recognize how critical it is to take steps toward a smarter and more equitable justice system that not only saves taxpayer money, but keeps people in their communities,” Whitmer said. “Over the last two years, we’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle to make Michigan a national leader on criminal justice reform.”

Members of the task force said low-level infractions, such as driving on a suspended license, violating probation and other misdemeanors, were exhausting public safety resources.

Issuing jail time to people due these types of violations was affecting hundreds of thousands of Michiganders without making the community safer, according to the task force.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of our collective work over the last two years to understand and improve the criminal justice system,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said.

Jail populations had tripled in less than 40 years, the state said. That growth was particularly prevalent in rural communities, officials said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a 20-bill package aiming to reshape penalties for traffic offenses on Jan. 4, 2020. (WDIV)

“These bills take important steps toward ending Michigan’s overuse of jails, and will protect thousands of people in Michigan from unnecessary arrests and incarceration for low-level misdemeanors and technical probation violations,” said John Cooper, executive director for Safe & Just Michigan. “These reforms will help thousands of people in Michigan get to work and keep their jobs instead of unnecessarily cycling through Michigan’s jail system, thereby improving both economic outcomes and public safety in our state.”

“This first set of bills will help end the vicious cycle that so many people are trapped in: being poor, not being able to pay your fines, having your license suspended and a warrant issued for failing to come to court,” said Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center.

The bill package aims to shift people away from jail unless they are a danger to the public.

“Working together on this important topic is a perfect example of putting people before politics,” said former Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield. “We all want a stronger, safer, and more free country. That requires smart reforms like these to hold people accountable without setting them up to fail.”

“This is not reactionary policy – it’s thoughtful and purposeful,” Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said. “These bills are rooted in data, informed by research and built on the consensus and compromise of a diverse group of stakeholders.”

The task force began in July 2019 to search for measures Michigan could take to safely reduce jail populations and find alternative punishments.

The bills eliminate driver’s license suspensions and criminal penalties for some traffic offenses; expand officer discretion to use appearance tickets instead of custodial arrests; use probation, fines and community service as sentences for low-level crimes; and limit jail time for those who violate the rules of supervision.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.