In early August, the Mackinac Center’s director of criminal justice policy, Kahryn Riley, took to the airwaves to discuss the most important justice reforms that either deserve consideration or are already being considered in the state Legislature. Riley was interviewed by Michael Patrick Shiels on the syndicated program “Michigan’s Big Show.”
Shiels and Riley discussed the opportunities lawmakers have to pass bills that bolster safety through effective spending and smart policy changes. With a declining crime rate and two prison closures slated for this year, Michigan’s criminal justice landscape is changing, and it’s important to pass reforms that maintain our progress toward greater safety and fairness.
The interview covered Riley’s top reform priorities, outlined briefly here:
Civil asset forfeiture
This practice allows law enforcement departments to obtain ownership of private property, sell it and then use the proceeds to supplement their budgets. Current law does not require police to even file criminal charges. The proposed reforms would require them not only to file charges but to wait until a property owner is convicted before taking ownership of items that have been proved to have been instruments or fruit of a crime.
In early September, Gov. Rick Snyder issued an executive directive calling for state agencies to remove the "Have you been convicted of a felony?" question from the first round of state job applications and applications for state-required occupational licenses. The governor's action opens up job opportunities for former offenders and offers an example for the private sector. The state requires individuals to have a license if they wish to work in one of over 200 occupations.
Michigan has over 3,000 criminal laws on the books. That’s many more than any well-meaning person can be expected to know and many more than the state could hope to enforce. We should overhaul our penal code, culling everything outmoded and duplicative and reclassifying crimes so that what remains is intuitive and carries a proportional punishment.
Violating one of Michigan’s thousands of offenses creates a criminal history that, in most cases, remains on one’s record for life. Current law allows individuals with one or two minor crimes to petition the courts to have these removed from their record — if they have the means to navigate the legal system. We should grant people a clean slate, automatically, after a decade without new crimes, so that a greater number of deserving people get a fresh start.
Raise the Age
Michigan is one of only four states to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults rather than juveniles. The juvenile justice system has more flexibility than the adult one to deliver a narrowly-tailored sentence and access to social services, producing better long-term outcomes for youth and substantially lowering their risk of offending again.
Although Michigan modified its laws so that people can no longer be jailed for failure to pay fines and fees, thousands of legally innocent people are sitting in county jails because they can’t afford their bail. When that happens, these individuals risk losing their housing, employment and even custody of their children. We should give judges more information about an individual’s ability to pay so that these collateral consequences don’t have to disrupt employers and families.
The criminal justice system represents one of the state’s most fearsome powers. The way we treat people inside it can either protect the public or put a drag on its resources. We owe it to ourselves to ensure that our criminal justice policy bolsters public safety and uses resources effectively. These reform opportunities bring us closer to that ideal.