‘Raise the Age’ Proposals Pending in Lansing

New legislation would stop automatically treating 17-year-olds as adults

Michigan is one of five states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in its criminal justice system. Legislative proposals pending in Lansing would change that. The bills would redefine “adult” to refer to people 18 years of age and older, bringing Michigan’s policies in line with most other states and federal laws that fix the age of legal adulthood at 18.

The Michigan House of Representatives has introduced 16 bills addressing juvenile offenders and youth in prison. It is well-documented that age-appropriate corrections policies are more effective at rehabilitating young adults. These bills aim to reduce misconduct among young offenders by giving 17-year-olds access to the more individualized penalties and by keeping them out of adult jails and prisons. Here are a few of the most notable proposals:

  • Michigan automatically prosecutes as adults all criminal defendants who were 17 or older at the time they committed a crime. HB 4607 would change this law so that 17-year-old criminal defendants would have their cases handled in the family division of circuit court instead, and eligibility for prosecution as an adult would begin at 18. Prosecutors would still be allowed to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults for serious crimes.
  • A related bill, HB 4662, would raise the age of eligibility for diversion to include 17-year-olds. Diversion is a process that allows a law enforcement agency to keep minors out of court when they are apprehended for less serious offenses. Diverting a minor may mean simply returning him to his parents’ custody or having his family commit to working with a local agency to resolve the problem.
  • 17-year-olds are currently jailed and imprisoned with adults. HB 4744 would forbid detaining minors 17 years of age and younger in the same facility as adults. This measure would require counties to pay for appropriate placement (i.e. foster homes, child care or licensed juvenile facilities) for 17-year-olds, as they do for all other minors, if parental custody is not an option.
  • There are currently 18 crimes for which a minor will be automatically prosecuted as an adult. HB 4753 would alter that list. It would reclassify three offenses as crimes for which prosecutors are allowed, but not required, to treat minors as adults. These include escape or attempted escape from a high-security juvenile facility, bank or safe robbery, and the possession or delivery of more than 1,000 grams of illegal drugs.

These four bills have been referred to the Committee on Law and Justice, but have seen no action. Lawmakers would do well to carefully consider the potential benefits of raising the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 18. They can look to the experiences of other states that raised the age, such as North Carolina, which found the benefits outweighed the costs in the long-term. Specifically, the Vera Institute projected that a $70 million annual investment in juvenile justice would result in $123 million in reoccurring benefits to young offenders, victims and taxpayers, while reducing juvenile recidivism by 10 percent. Young offenders in the criminal justice system are at a crossroads; policies that might improve their odds of a successful, productive life merit special attention from lawmakers.

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In 2011 newly elected Gov. Rick Snyder championed a corporate handout initiative called the Michigan Business Development Program. The program distributes mostly cash grants (and some loans and other favors) to companies that make investments and add new jobs, above some baseline, to their payroll in Michigan. The MBDP was a replacement for the state’s Michigan Economic Growth Authority, which is widely regarded as a multibillion-dollar job creation failure.

The MBDP is very likely ineffective, too, and should be suspended, at least until the state is willing to make public the assumptions that contribute to the credulity-straining claims of the program’s so-called “return on investment.” Ideally, the Legislature would hire some independent academic scholar with no vested interest in the question to assess the value of the program empirically.

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There are several troublesome questions about the MBDP. State officials cannot prove that the jobs they are claiming this program is responsible for would not have been created without subsidies. Evidence suggests almost all decisions about business expansion and relocation are not determined by government incentives.

Scholar Timothy Bartik of the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Institute writes that “the average incentive package … might tip the location decision of 6 percent of incented businesses.” That means that incentives made a difference only 6 percent of the time. The vast majority did not help a jurisdiction’s economy.

The MBDP also lacks transparency. In its fiscal year 2016 annual report, the program’s administrators make outrageous claims that they can’t — or won’t — back up. The report says that the projected return on investment for 2016 projects alone is 10 to one. That is, for every dollar in subsidies distributed by the state, $10 will be returned to it as a result.

They are not even willing to justify their inflated claims. The administrators have refused a request to release the assumptions used to render company ROI results. In other words, the state is saying, “Our program is a huge success but you’ll just have to take our word for it.” It is naive to do so. State jobs officials have every economic incentive to claim success where there may be none. Their own jobs depend on the appearance of job and wealth creation.

To forecast this huge impact the state uses a software model called “REMI,” which scholars have said can be misused to make government programs appear more successful than they really are. Years ago, the state commissioned a study from a consultant about its film subsidy program. The consultant used REMI and reported the program was a success. But the consultant omitted 100 percent of the costs associated with the program. REMI would have likely shown a zero to negative impact from the program had it been fed real-world costs.

How is anyone to know if officials aren’t likewise gaming the model to produce glowing figures if no one is allowed to examine the assumptions fed into the REMI model?

It is worth noting that the state plays a similar game with its Pure Michigan tourism subsidy program. It hires a consultant who claims the program has a ROI of more than $8 for every tax dollar spent but refuses to precisely explain how that figure was generated. The state has made it clear it is comfortable with such secrecy.

The state approved 377-plus MBDP deals, by our count, from March 2012 through June 2017. The total value of the subsidies approved (but not necessarily paid out yet) exceeds $350 million. Not every grant will be paid out. The 2016 report lists nine companies whose deals were revoked and eight of those were for failing to meet at least one performance milestone or parameter. That number might be much higher were it not for the 38 amendments to deals first struck in 2015 or 2016.

Most of the amendments identified in the annual report indicate some type of relaxing of previously established mandates, such as extending the date at which the company had to create new jobs or lowering the job creation threshold.

Most of these dismissed and (eventually) amended deals would have been included in previous projected ROI calculations. As original expectations turned out to be wrong, so too would projected performance. If administrators make incorrect assumptions, their forecasts will be incorrect, as well. It is ironic, but the REMI model cannot predict the future accurately because MBDP administrators cannot predict the future accurately. These and other issues render the ROI pronouncements for this program useless.

The state’s jobs mandarins make outrageous claims for their own success, secure in the knowledge that they don’t have to actually prove it. State administrators can’t or won’t prove that the MBDP is effective and so should stop puffing up the program as if it is. Lansing lawmakers should call on them to justify their claims. People deserve transparency, not unjustified boasts about the results of favored programs.

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September 22, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report

Senate Bill 335, Revise campaign finance law to reflect Citizens United ruling: Passed 62 to 45 in the House

To revise Michigan campaign finance law provisions that violate the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. That decision limited the power of congress and state legislatures to restrict election-related political speech by corporations, under a definition that includes non-profit groups motivated by ideological or political concerns.

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The bill would authorize “independent expenditure committees” (dubbed "super-PACs") that could advocate for a candidate or ballot initiative but not contribute to or coordinate with a candidate. Candidates could solicit money for these committees, however. Committees would be subject to campaign finance filings but would not have to disclose the identity of donors, and there would be no cap on spending or contributions, which could come from corporations and unions.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 356, Impose “salespersons license” mandate on liquor industry: Passed 106 to 1 in the House

To impose licensure, regulation and legal training requirements on any person who works for a beer or wine manufacturer, wholesaler or outstate seller and is involved in selling these products to retailers. This would essentially convert a Liquor Control Commission rule into state law.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 73, Repeal life without parole for some cocaine sale crimes: Passed 35 to 0 in the Senate

To revise a law that authorized a mandatory life sentence for possessing or selling large quantities of cocaine or other "hard" drugs. This bill would change the law to instead authorize twice the usual drug trafficking sentence for these crimes. Senate Bill 72 would make prisoners convicted of these offenses eligible for parole after serving five years in prison.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 358, Revise marketing detail in liquor control regulatory regime: Passed 106 to 1 in the House

To revise the expansive Michigan liquor control regulatory regime that state law prescribes in great detail, so that the law explicitly allows a manufacturer or wholesaler to give retailers point-of-purchase signs that promote special event sale prices for their brands.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit www.MichiganVotes.org.

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Most Michigan Parents Satisfied with School Choice

Superintendent Whiston backtracks from 'backwards' claim

Brian Whiston

The Michigan Department of Education’s chief quickly backtracked from an unsupportable misstatement about school choice, a misstatement that neglected the popularity of choice among families who use it.

Appearing Sept. 8 on Lansing public television’s “Off the Record,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston responded to a reporter’s question about what has caused Michigan’s long-term decline in educational achievement. “I think the focus over the past 20-25 years has been choice, inter-district choice, there’s been charter choice. While I do support choice, and I want to be clear on that, it hasn’t led – it’s probably taken us backwards overall,” he asserted.

It took just a few days for the state superintendent to backtrack from the remark: “I do not think that choice – as defined by multiple pathways within a district; outside district choices; and charter schools – has set us back. In fact, I say it is an important part of our education system and I support these choices – my record is clear on that.”

As I stated in an MLive article, Whiston’s quick and precise apology owed something to the positive experience thousands of Michigan families have had with the public school choices currently available to them. A growing share of Michigan public school students – nearly one in four statewide – are enrolled in options outside their assigned district.

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The day after the state superintendent’s follow-up remarks, the Mackinac Center released our new survey of 837 parents across Michigan who use school choice, enrolling either in a charter school or in a traditional district outside where they live. The racially and socioeconomically diverse group of moms and dads agreed on at least one key point: They are satisfied with the experience.

Four out of five respondents assigned their new school either an A or B grade, a higher rate than national surveys of the general public school parent population. And by a nearly four-to-one ratio, the group of parents would recommend choice to others.

Most powerfully, 65 percent of those interviewed said that the ability to exercise choice has raised their expectations for their children’s educational accomplishments, while 28 percent said it had no effect. Even greater shares of African-American and low-income parents expressed this positive reaction.

The survey also revealed diverse reasons for using choice. Nearly one-third, or 30 percent, cited “academic performance or test scores” as the leading factor, but even more (38 percent) were looking for a different program or educational philosophy. Smaller class sizes, safety or discipline issues and extracurricular activities were all selected as other top reasons for transferring.

In his apology, Whiston clarified that he was trying to argue that choice alone won’t solve Michigan’s academic struggles. He also said that the state needs to address the challenges faced by districts losing students through choice programs. While the state might help by allowing local districts greater flexibility to innovate and attract more students, leaders should not protect districts by restricting the options families currently enjoy.

As they respond to the environment of school choice, education leaders should become more attuned to the voices of parents. Once they hear, loud and clear, that parents like choice, then they can focus on helping to make effective options available to even more families.

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How a Private Arts Festival Thrives

ArtPrize is in its ninth year

Thousands of ArtPrize visitors gather in Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids. (photo via JaenellWoods at WikiCommons).

People like art. That’s good — it’s something that should be treasured and shared widely. But politicians have often taken that to mean government should subsidize it.

That’s been the trend in recent decades. At the federal level, taxpayers spend $148 million through the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both established in 1965. Federal arts spending has consistently gone up for decades, but based on the response to suggestions that it be cut slightly, you might conclude no art was produced in the United States before 1965.

The state of Michigan spends money on “arts” through a variety of programs and channels (including the Department of Environmental Quality). Most of the direct spending goes through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, with a budget of more than $10 million that insiders can dish out.

Local governments also spend big. The Detroit Institute of Arts gets $23 million every year from people in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties through a special tax increase. That’s on top of the state, federal and other city funds it receives.

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Government spending on arts is dubious. What counts as “art” is subjective and particularly so when the government is in charge. For example, backers of Michigan’s failed film subsidy program claimed that sending hundreds of millions of dollars to billionaire Hollywood film studios was “supporting the arts.” And patrons of museums and festivals are, on average, far wealthier than most Americans, meaning the subsidies benefit the well-off at the expense of the poor. Finally, art subsidies are also unnecessary — the private sector has and will continue to fund art no matter what government chooses to subsidize.

With this in mind, it’s nice to see ArtPrize — a nonprofit, privately funded festival — doing so well. The Grand Rapids event is kicking off its ninth year. The radio program “Our American Stories” recently took a deep dive into what makes ArtPrize so successful.

More than 500,000 visitors will experience art from 1,400 participants over the next 19 days. That makes it the largest arts festival in the world. That’s about the number of visitors the Detroit Institute of Arts typically gets in an entire year.

The bottom-up nature of ArtPrize makes it unique. Anyone can enter for cash prizes and people vote, along with a panel of judges, on the winner.

From all accounts, ArtPrize is a fantastic event, and the fact that it doesn’t require annual appropriations from the Legislature makes it even better. Swing by Grand Rapids from Sept. 20 to Oct. 8 and enjoy the festivities.

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Legislature Takes Aim at Rolling Back Harmful Licensing Laws

These proposals would free up citizens to work, earn money

Michigan’s occupational licensing laws — rules that forbid people from working in certain jobs before they’ve jumped through the right hoops — are among the most stringent in the Midwest. A review of the evidence, from scholars on both the political left and right, shows that licensing laws lead to fewer jobs, lower overall income, worse income inequality, larger prison populations and higher prices for consumers.

So it’s good news that legislators are taking a crack at some of these laws. Here are a few bills that have been submitted this year and what they would do.

  • Contractors and Construction workers: Senate Bill 340, sponsored by Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, would ensure that certain construction work costing less than $3,000 would be exempt from licensing rules. The current threshold is $600. A similar bill passed the state House last year, but failed in the Senate. More details can be found here.
  • Voluntary Medical Clinics: House Bill 4283, sponsored by Rep. Robert Kosowski, D-Westland, would remove restrictions on medical providers who want to volunteer in Michigan. Around the nation, volunteer clinics like Remote Area Medical operate by using doctors, nurses, dentists and other professionals who provide free services to the poor. Often, they rely on licensed volunteers from out of state, and Michigan effectively bans them from helping.
  • Dental therapists: Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, would allow dental therapists to work in Michigan. These workers are trained, work under the supervision of a dentist and can do preventative and routine dental care at a much lower cost. Under current Michigan law, these services must be provided by a dentist, which limits access to dental services, especially for rural and low-income families.
  • Psychologists: House Bill 4549, sponsored by Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, would keep the state from forcing licensed psychologists who received a master’s degree before 2010 to take an extra exam to maintain their license. This exam, which was created in 2010 and resulted in confusion among practitioners, is unnecessary.
  • Lawyers: House Bill 4312, sponsored by Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, would allow lawyers from other states to take the Michigan bar exam and gain a license. Currently, the state imposes additional requirements on lawyers trained in other states before they can operate legally in Michigan. This drives up legal costs for Michiganders, despite there being no evidence that these mandates make for safer lawyering. This bill has passed the state House.
  • Painters and Decorators: House Bill 4608, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Noble, R-Plymouth, would eliminate Michigan’s license for painters and decorators. Only nine other states require this license and there is no evidence it protects public health and safety. This bill has passed the state House.
  • Ex-Offenders: House Bill 4117, sponsored by Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, and House Bill 4065, sponsored by Rep. David Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, would roll back some laws that restrict people with a criminal record when they look for work. Iden’s bill would get rid of the blanket ban preventing people with felonies from selling insurance, while Pagel’s bill would allow corrections facilities to hire former convicts. Neither bill mandates anything — each simply lets people with criminal records be considered for work. The evidence shows that Michigan’s work restrictions on people with criminal backgrounds leads to more of them returning to prison.

These are all good steps and the bills are worthy of support. But legislators need to continue working toward a comprehensive package of laws that refocus the state on mandating training, education, tests and fees for occupations only when they have a demonstrated impact on public health and safety.

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Mackinac Center Joins 87 Groups and Activists Calling for Federal Tax Reform

Time for a simple, efficient, sufficient and fair tax code

Last week, Americans for Tax Reform and a broad range of center-right organizations sent a letter to key policymakers in Congress and the executive branch urging passage of legislation to simplify and reduce the burden imposed by the federal tax code. The Mackinac Center was one of the signatories.

Many economists say that a virtuous tax system rests on four pillars: simplicity, efficiency, revenue sufficiency and fairness. The current federal tax code for both individuals and businesses fails on all four points.

The tax code is hard to understand and navigate, with mountains of complex rules, requirements and exceptions that impose massive compliance costs on families and businesses. Successive generations of politicians have used the tax code to deliver selective benefits to favored special interests in the form of narrowly defined credits and exemptions. Among other bad effects, this means the rest of us must pay more to make up the difference.

To paraphrase the president who signed the last genuine tax reform measure in 1986, the current tax code permits the employees of the Internal Revenue Service to treat the money we earn as if it belongs to them first. The code eschews simplicity and fairness, and is instead skewed toward complexity and favoritism.

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The nation was promised tax reform by Donald Trump when he was just a candidate. On September 25, a comprehensive tax reform plan will be announced. It is expected to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 15 or 20 percent from its current rate of 38.9 percent and double the current personal exemption for individuals.

These reforms are long overdue and could have profound consequences for economic growth and prosperity in Michigan, America and ultimately the world.

To hear more about what the tax reform bill is likely to contain, watch Grover Norquist’s speech “The New Fight for the Right” at the Mackinac Center Issues and Ideas Luncheon of September 7.

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State government is very well fed

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is content with a 4.25 percent state income tax rate, and the Legislature lacks the votes for even a small tax cut. But 2018 will be Snyder’s last year in office, and every seat in the state House and Senate will be on the ballot. Whether taxpayers get any relief, then, appears to be in the hands of voters in next year’s primary and general elections.

A modest state income tax cut should be popular. After all, state government can afford to take less, and tax relief was promised to voters by a previous class of Lansing politicians.

In 2007 then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm raised the income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent with a majority of votes in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House. Included in the law authorizing the tax hike was a scheduled rollback to the previous 3.9 percent rate.

But in 2011, Granholm and the Legislature repealed that provision, delivering instead a tax cut of a mere one-tenth of one percent, taking the rate to the current 4.25 percent.

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Since then, a better economy and an array of reforms have meant a steady increase in the amount of money rolling into the state treasury. Economic growth means Michigan taxpayers are sending $6.9 billion more to Lansing than they did in 2010. That 27.3 percent increase is double the rate of inflation.

Michigan can afford an income tax cut.

A rate reduction might not even cost state government a dime, considering the projected increases in state revenue, which is expected to be $2.1 billion higher four years from now, a 9.3 percent increase. Using just half that increase would be enough to bring the income tax rate back down to 3.9 percent.

Pro-growth policies and a better economy are also pulling some people out of poverty. Fewer people are receiving government assistance, with the state’s welfare population down 75 percent in the past five years. Fewer people need food stamps, day care subsidies and related programs.

Nevertheless, Lansing politicians keep finding new ways to spend. Handouts and tax breaks for some favored corporations and developers will redistribute $884 million from Michigan taxpayers this year. There is no evidence this benefits the state, while history shows that an across-the-board cut in the income tax almost surely would stimulate growth.

Michigan families and small businesses deserve to keep more of their hard-earned income rather than keep handing it over to an already well-fed state government. Whether they get to keep more may be up to voters in 2018 when they send their messages to legislators in the August primaries and the November general election.

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Senate Bill 335, Revise campaign finance law to reflect Citizens United ruling: Passed 23 to 12 in the Senate

To revise Michigan campaign finance law provisions that violate the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The decision limited the power of congress and state legislatures to restrict election-related political speech by corporations, including non-profit groups motivated by ideological or political concerns.

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The bill would authorize “independent expenditure committee” (dubbed "super-PACs") that could advocate for a candidate but not contribute to or coordinate with a candidate. Committees would be subject to campaign finance filings but would not have to disclose the identity of donors, and there would be no cap on spending or contributions, which could come from corporations and unions.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 100, Ease restrictions on cost and fee awards in lawsuits against the state

To ease restrictions on a person who successfully sues the state also collecting costs and fees in addition to any court-ordered damage awards, with some exceptions. Under current law, the winning plaintiff must prove a state agency's position was "frivolous" to collect costs and fees. The bill would instead require the state provide clear and convincing evidence that its position was justifiable. It would also remove a cap on attorney fees that may be reimbursed.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4892, Fix and sanction city candidate filing deadline errors: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To provide an exemption to state-imposed city election candidacy filing deadlines for several cities that gave prospective candidates bad information on this, causing some to miss the filing deadline for elections this November. The bill would require these cities to put these candidates on the ballot. It would also require more training and oversight for these cities' election officials, and impose $2,500 fines. Starting in 2018 cities that do this would be subject to $5,000 fine.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4716, Remove child from parents for female genital mutilation: Passed 89 to 16 in the House

To take away the parental rights of a parent who subjects a child to female genital mutilation. This would be in the same section of law that terminates parental rights for severe child abuse and molestation.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE: MichiganVotes.org, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit www.MichiganVotes.org.

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Proposed Law Would Allow MDOC to Hire Felons

Bill opens another avenue to former offenders seeking employment

People who commit crimes should be punished. But in most cases, the punishment shouldn’t hang over the offender’s head for the rest of his life. The Legislature has made progress on a bill amending the law that prohibits felons from working for the Department of Corrections. The Corrections Code currently forbids the department from employing anyone who has a felony conviction or felony charges pending. The bill, sponsored by Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, would change that. It would remove the blanket prohibition and require the department to establish a policy for hiring some ex-offenders.

The bill has passed the House with nearly unanimous support and has received favorable treatment in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate should pass the bill and send it on to Gov. Rick Snyder for final approval.

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This proposed legislation would not require the department to hire people with felony records or charges. It would simply set up a procedure for making those hiring decisions possible. The bill requires that the hiring policy include an extensive background check and the written approval of the department director for each hire; if the legislation passes, the final policy may be even more stringent.

The Senate has already introduced and passed broad reforms to the criminal justice system in Michigan this year. The conversation around those reforms confirmed the bipartisan commitment to ensuring that our state protects public safety while maximizing the number of productive people in our communities. The governor also reiterated his commitment to effective criminal justice and offender re-entry policies, noting that employment is key to helping offenders reintegrate successfully into society.

Moreover, this proposal is in keeping with a recurring theme in Michigan criminal justice reform: solving problems. Liberals and conservatives agree that our justice system must do more than warehouse people in prisons. It must also focus on rehabilitation and creating long-term solutions that enable offenders to get themselves back on track. This has resulted in the department starting to train prisoners in high-demand trades and issue certificates of employability to help them find work when they re-enter society. Both data and intuition confirm that being able to work is a key to successful reintegration.

When people with a criminal record reform themselves, it isn’t just good for them. It’s good for all of us. This bill is one way to make that more likely.

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