I recently had the opportunity to speak about the criminal justice system to a group of legislative staffers at a session of the Mackinac Center’s Capitol Leaders Program. The program aims to deepen the understanding that the participants — young leaders — have of different policy issues. I gave an overview of the five major areas of criminal justice, highlighting one important reform for each area. Here’s a summary of my remarks.
Part I: Criminal Law
We wouldn’t have a criminal justice system without a body of criminal law to formalize what we consider right and wrong in Michigan. Legislators pass criminal statutes that identify bad actions and impose a penalty for them. But Michigan’s criminal code is vast and disorganized: It includes over 3,100 crimes, and lawmakers add more every year. This means that practically all of us could be prosecuted for any number of offenses, and we’re relying on prosecutorial discretion to determine which people deserve a penalty and criminal record. The poor, who cannot afford a rigorous (and expensive) defense, are especially at risk of being prosecuted under an overly large set of laws. It is past time for Michigan to overhaul our penal code into something much more coherent and concise.
Part II: Law Enforcement
We rely on police agencies to protect us from harm and to investigate crimes. Layers of law enforcement at the state, county and local levels enforce the crimes passed by the Legislature and ordinances passed by some local governments. Current law allows government agencies to seize and keep property belonging to innocent people through the process of civil asset forfeiture. Police should be able to seize personal property they suspect may be used to commit crimes, but they shouldn’t be able to keep it unless the owner has been convicted of a crime involving that property.
Part III: Courts
Judges and juries are responsible for determining whether an alleged offender is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There is a special adjudicative process for juveniles in which the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and family pursue a team-based approach to getting the young offender back on track. But Michigan is one of five states that prosecutes and incarcerates 17-year-olds as adults — even though the law treats them as children otherwise. Although it would cost counties more for treatment and community supervision to add this group to their juvenile systems, the long-term return on investment would be well worth it. Juvenile courts have more flexibility and do a much better job of tailoring solutions for teens that keep them from committing crimes later.
Part IV: Corrections
People convicted of serious crimes serve time in a state prison maintained by the Department of Corrections. Most prisoners don’t serve their maximum sentence, however. Most are paroled, meaning they are released back to their community under the supervision of the department. Parolees generally must comply with a number of rules, such as observing curfews or participating in substance abuse treatment. About 15 percent of parolees are sent back to prison for noncompliance, where they serve an average of 14 months. This “revolving prison door” is expensive for taxpayers and a barrier to inmates successfully returning to society. Prison should be reserved as the penalty of last resort for truly criminal behavior.
Part V: Re-entry
For many offenders, the punishment for a crime doesn’t end when they have paid a fine or served time. A criminal record may create an insurmountable barrier to housing and employment for decades to come. Two solutions would help offenders become productive citizens. First, occupational licenses should not contain “good moral character” clauses that automatically exclude anyone with a criminal record from practicing that occupation — especially if the nature of the crime is completely unrelated to the nature of the occupation. Second, low-level offenders with only one or two offenses on their record should have that record cleared after ten years of lawful living. These changes would help more offenders land jobs, dramatically improving their odds of making a successful return to society and productive citizenship.
There’s much to be done, and it’s worth doing right. Michigan spends well over $2 billion on criminal justice every year through a system that has a significant, lasting impact on those who enter. Thoughtful reforms give us the opportunity to become a model for other states of smart, effective justice that bolsters public safety and supports safe reintegration.