Michigan governor signs bills to limit incarcerations

Under legislation, courts can issue non-jail sentences such as fines or community service for misdemeanors

Bill sponsor Sen. Sylvia Santana has been vocal about the changes saying the state can stop wasting funds and resources when there are better alternatives.
Bill sponsor Sen. Sylvia Santana has been vocal about the changes saying the state can stop wasting funds and resources when there are better alternatives. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Legislation that allows for alternatives to jail and aims to limit recidivism in Michigan were among the dozens of new laws Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Monday.

Among the measures were 20 based on the recommendations of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration formed in 2019. The task force heard testimony from hundreds of people and reviewed 10 years of statewide arrest and court data after the state’s incarcerated population nearly tripled over four decades.

The “Smart Justice” package eliminates mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases such as a person's first time failing to appear in court. Law enforcement also will be allowed to use discretion to issue a citation and release a suspect from custody for most misdemeanors.

Bill sponsor Sen. Sylvia Santana has been vocal about the changes saying the state can stop wasting funds and resources when there are better alternatives.

“The bills signed into law by the Governor today marks the culmination of 18 months of bipartisan work and while I believe we will see safer communities and less recidivism as a result of these reforms, there is still much work ahead," the Detroit Democrat said in a news release. "We need to continue our commitment to making necessary changes so that families who have lost a loved one to a system that overly, and inconsistently, prosecutes people of color and the poor can get the justice they deserve.”

Under the legislation, courts can issue non-jail sentences such as fines or community service for misdemeanors.

“If we want to fix the school-to-prison pipeline, it starts with fixing our judicial system and investing in education,” said Santana. “With today’s bill signing by the Governor, Michigan took a step huge forward in these areas by changing how we handle juveniles who run away from home, skip school, and disobey their parents. Under this new law, the number of days a juvenile can be locked up will be limited and the focus will be shifted to discovering the root cause of their behavior. I maintain my commitment to giving our youth a chance at the success they deserve through continued education and supportive resources, and I look forward to continuing our collective effort on more reforms with my colleagues.”

The elimination of license suspensions for violations not related to reckless driving is a welcome change that will make a difference in the lives of many, Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center and a member of the Task Force, said in a release.

“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," Alexander said.

Being unable to pay fees and fines during a person's probation will not make them ineligible for parole as long as they have made good-faith efforts to pay, according to the legislation. The maximum period of probation for most felony convictions will be shortened from five years to three, and in some cases those who have completed half of their probation would be eligible for early discharge.

Other legislation outside the package recommended by the task force includes a bill to help juveniles who broke the law to move on and lead a better life. Another creates an automatic expungement system to seal juvenile records from public view if they don’t commit future offenses.

Courts also will be required to limit sentences sending young offenders to secure juvenile detention facilities and will must hold a hearing before sending them to a facility. Children who run away from home will be given a hearing before being taken into custody.

Under another measure, the lifetime ban from receiving food benefits will be lifted for those with more than one drug-related felony.

“Despite the challenges 2020 presented, I am proud of the incredible work we have done as a state to reform our criminal justice system,” said Whitmer. “After establishing the bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration we were able to make real and meaningful change that will impact the lives of thousands of Michiganders. I am eager to continue to work with the legislature in the new year to create a healthy and strong Michigan.”

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