When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy launched its Criminal Justice Policy Initiative in July 2016, stakeholders and lawmakers already agreed that reform was overdue. 

In 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder, the Legislature, and the Supreme Court issued a joint invitation to the Council of State Governments to come study Michigan’s criminal justice and corrections systems. The goal: Find recommendations about how to reinvest resources to save money and improve public safety. 

The following year, the Michigan House of Representatives introduced a set of proposals based on the CSG findings. The proposed reforms included a controversial policy known as “presumptive parole,” which would automatically grant parole to some prisoners who have served their minimum sentence. Debate on this policy stymied the passage of all but one reform to Michigan’s criminal justice system — despite support for many of the ideas from the Mackinac Center and others — until 2017. 

Finally, in early March of this year, the Michigan House of Representatives agreed to a set of sweeping Senate proposals designed to introduce some common sense into Michigan’s criminal justice system. As of this writing, the Senate approved the House’s amendments and sent the 20 bills on to the governor for his signature, which he is expected to give.

This is an important and very promising development in criminal justice policy in Michigan. The bills include many commonsense measures to enhance public safety and save taxpayer dollars at the same time. They include directing the flow of state funds to probation and parole programs that rely on proven best practices, cutting off welfare benefits to people who abscond from parole and creating special rehabilitative plans for younger inmates. They also include requiring the state to collect data about the corrections system and establishing special problem-solving courts that will help parolees reenter society. 

This is also an appropriate moment to reflect on why this work matters. Incarcerating a citizen is the most powerful exercise of power that our state (having abolished the death penalty over 150 years ago) wields. Incarceration is also an incredible expense: We spend very nearly $2 billion — a fifth of our general fund dollars — keeping 42,000 people behind bars each year. Finally, incarcerating someone, even for a few days, means they could incur consequences such as the loss of a job or housing and are cut off from family responsibilities and ties to the community. The individual repercussions are often devastating. 

So these reforms are critically important. They reflect the growing awareness that involvement in the criminal justice system carries a stigma that can push entire communities to the fringes of society. They will give us the means to close what has become for many a revolving door of crime and imprisonment. They will give us the tools to gather data about our criminal justice and corrections systems and make clear-eyed adjustments where necessary. They will free us to reallocate tax dollars for crime prevention and successful offender reentry. And, if all goes well, they will be just the first step towards creating a modern, effective criminal justice system that makes Michigan a model for the entire nation.