Lawmakers pass criminal justice reforms
ALPENA — A bevy of bills approved by Michigan legislators earlier this month will help lighten the load in Alpena’s courthouses and jail cells beginning in 2021.
Currently before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and ready for a final signature, the bills mark a notable step in the criminal justice reform efforts made at the state level in recent years — efforts that will have a marked effect on Northeast Michigan residents confronted by police and the courts for minor infractions of the law.
DRIVERS LICENSE SUSPENSION
Currently, the Secretary of State is required to suspend or revoke drivers licenses for offenses unrelated to safe driving, such as certain drug-related offenses or failing to pay child support.
In 2019, Alpena’s District Court handled the cases of 629 people arrested for non-traffic-related misdemeanors.
Lack of a driver’s license can mean choosing between missing work or driving illegally and risking getting stopped again, upping penalties and fines.
To get a license back, an offender must pay court fees, made more difficult when it’s tough to get to work. Unpaid costs can snowball into still more fines and potential jail time, making keeping a job and caring for a family even harder.
The bills before the governor would remove many of the reasons drivers licenses are taken away, stopping that cycle before it begins.
A person convicted more than once of possessing or distributing a controlled substance can’t get the government’s help paying for their groceries.
Bills that passed the Legislature earlier this month would allow people convicted of drug offenses to receive food assistance as they battle their addiction.
In Alpena County in 2019, police made 52 arrests for drug offenses. Not all of those would necessarily be eligible for the newly granted food assistance.
Supporters of the change say food assistance is vital as offenders try to get back on their feet after incarceration, often unable to get a job because of their criminal record. According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits decreases by 13% a drug offender’s probability of returning to prison within one year.
When possible, judges tailor sentences to an individual crime and the circumstances of the offender, but, for now, they are required to impose minimum sentences on some offenses, such as the 129 new drunk driving cases handled by Alpena’s District Court in 2019.
The bills passed by lawmakers would allow judges to choose a shorter sentence when that better serves the offender and the community.
Jail time may be suspended all together for offenders who go through drug court or other jail diversion program.
Last year, 824 people reported to the Alpena County courthouse for misdemeanors. Some of them were first handcuffed and taken to jail.
If the recently passed bills are signed, police would be required to give someone who commits a minor crime a ticket ordering them to appear in court instead of taking them to jail.
Serious misdemeanors and violent crimes would not qualify for an appearance ticket, and police would have leeway to still take someone into custody in the event of an uncooperative or potentially dangerous person.
The bills, if signed, would also:
∫ shorten maximum probation time for most felony convictions from five to three years and make it easier to be discharged early from probation,
∫ allow more young offenders to have criminal charges dismissed if they successfully complete probation,
∫ require courts to sentence someone convicted of a non-serious misdemeanor with a fine, community service, or other non-jail option when possible,
∫ and enable the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to grant occupational licenses to people seeking to be hairdressers, carpenters, nurses, or other occupations. Those licenses are currently blocked to people with criminal records.
A bill intended to curb bond amounts and require those accused of certain minor offenses be released without bond didn’t make it to the legislative session.
Another criminal justice reform bill, signed by Whitmer in October, will shorten the time people have to wait to have their criminal records expunged and make that process automatic after a certain period of time.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.