Lame-Duck Legislature Takes Two Steps Forward on Criminal Justice Reform

The Legislature passed two measures in lame duck that are good steps forward for Michigan’s criminal justice system. 

The first is the elimination of the “successor judge veto.” In Michigan, judges who hear criminal cases and sentence offenders to jail can later step in with a veto should one of those offenders appeal a decision by the parole board. And until the lame-duck reform, so could the judge who took over when the original sentencing judge retired or moved to another post. 

The new law is designed to prevent judges who never heard an offender’s case from being allowed to deny parole to someone, although the judge is still allowed to weigh in on the parole review. This move ensures fairness in the re-entry process. It also encourages offenders to work hard to earn parole, because it removes an element of uncertainty. 

Now, offenders seeking release from prison know that it’s up to their own behavior and their judge’s good opinion to ensure their release. 

The other important move the Legislature undertook in its lame-duck session was to remove the bonding requirement from Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture scheme. 

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to seize (and often keep) private property belonging to individuals they suspect of wrongdoing. Citizens need not be convicted of or even charged with a crime for the police to forfeit (that is, retain) their property. And, until recently, citizens who wanted to challenge the seizure of their property had to post a bond to start the proceedings. 

The bond requirement, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan appeals court earlier this year, demanded that property owners pay 10 percent of the value of the contested items. The value was assessed by the forfeiting agency, giving it an incentive to inflate the value. 

The elimination of this bond passed both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly, but lawmakers should finish the good work they’ve started by requiring law enforcement agencies to wait until a criminal conviction before seizing private  property.