Legislature Actively Considers Criminal Justice Reforms

This session, the Michigan Legislature has actively considered criminal justice reforms championed by the Mackinac Center, attracting attention from national observers.

“As one of the first states in the country to begin the process of cleaning up its criminal code, Michigan is leading the way for criminal justice reform at the state level,” said Peter Bisbee, the membership director for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy. “By addressing civil asset forfeiture, overcriminalization, and mens rea, Michigan has set the example for common-sense criminal justice reforms. Even Congress is looking to Michigan’s example as lawmakers on Capitol Hill search for criminal justice reforms that can garner bipartisan support.”

These efforts have culminated in all branches of government recognizing the need for reform. In May, Gov. Rick Snyder called for reforms to address prisoner re-entry, preventative solutions and the problem of overcriminalization. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman has urged the Legislature to improve the definitions of criminal intent in the penal code. House Republicans this year announced several bold criminal justice reforms in their House Action Plan, with Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter championing civil asset forfeiture reform.

On Oct. 20, Snyder signed legislation that reforms the state’s civil asset forfeiture system. The governor noted the importance of property rights protections as he signed the bill. (Read more here.)

The Michigan House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 4713, which addresses the issue of criminal intent (mens rea, as it’s referred to in Latin). The bill recognizes that the severity of punishment for a crime should be related to the defendant’s culpable mental state. When a criminal law is silent on the element of intent, the bill sets a standard of proof for conviction of a crime. Testifying on the bill, Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz noted the importance of carefully written criminal laws.

Michael Reitz

Michael Reitz testifying on HB 4713.

HB 4713 brought together a diverse coalition of support. Testifying after Reitz, Shelli Weisberg of the ACLU of Michigan said: “The ACLU completely and fully supports the bill and I completely and fully support everything you just heard from the Mackinac Center.” The bill is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.

The House also addressed the problem of overcriminalization — a statutory regime that increasingly criminalizes behavior for regulatory purposes. According to research published by the Mackinac Center, Michigan has more than 3,100 criminal statutes. In response, several representatives formed a work group to identify unnecessary or outdated criminal laws.

After a review of the criminal code, the House passed a package of seven bills that repealed old laws. Among the criminal prohibitions: using “indecent, immoral or insulting” language in the presence of a woman or child; performing “The Star Spangled Banner” publicly unless it is played in its entirety; promoting or participating in a walkathon; and improper posting of a camp registration card on state-owned land. This bill package is moving through the Senate. 

We also anticipate examining Michigan’s prison population, as it compares to other states. A study from the Pew Center on the States found that Michigan’s sentences and average prison stays have increased over time and exceed the national average, resulting in higher correctional costs.