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Michigan Gov. Whitmer Signs Series of Critical Criminal Justice Reform Bills

— January 1, 2021

The wide-ranging set of bills impact everything from the availability of juvenile records to drug offender’s eligibility for federal benefits.

Earlier this week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a series of criminal justice bills, which restrict the public’s access to juvenile records while reforming the penal consequences of other offenses.

According to The Detroit News¸ Gov. Whitmer said Monday’s round of legislation was inspired and based off research and collaboration with the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

The task force, notes the News, was formed to figure out why, exactly, the state’s jail population has tripled in less than 40 years.

In response, the bipartisan commission recommended a series of new laws and code overhauls that would make Michigan “a leader on criminal justice reform.”

“Today proves that it is possible to make tremendous progress to improve our state when we work together to get things done,” Gov. Whitmer said on Monday.

Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor, Garlin Gilchrist, praised the legislations’ passage as well as the positive effect it will likely have on state residents.

“Before Gov. Whitmer and I took office, the system didn’t work for families, communities or our state as a whole, but we made a conscious effort to make our state a national leader in reform, and the results speak for themselves,” Gilchrist said.

WXYZ7 provides a list of the laws and changes enacted by Whitmer. They include:

  • A set of House-sponsored bills that eliminate license suspensions for violations of laws which have nothing to do with driving (following the Joint Task Force’s finding that driving with a suspended license is the third-most common reason Michiganders end up in jail)
  • House Bill 5853, which classifies many traffic-related misdemeanors as civil infractions
  • Another round of House bills that removes criminal penalties and minimum jail sentences for violations of the Motor Vehicle Code, School Code, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, Railroad Code, and Public Health Code
  • A collection of Senate proposals which provide alternatives to jail for many offenders, reduces probation terms, and encourages sentences geared towards rehabilitative outcomes

To see the full list of bills, click here.

Gov. Whitmer also approved two critical provisions in the Clean Slate for Kids package:

  • Senate Bill 681, which allows former youth offenders to expunge traffic-related adjudications. SB 681 also creates an automatic process to expunge most juvenile offenses two years after a youth has completed the terms of their adjudication, including incarceration or parole, and has exited the court’s supervision
  • Senate Bill 682, which makes all juvenile court records non-public beginning January 1st, 2021. Prior to the passage and signing of SB 682, juvenile records were accessible to anyone, for any reason, via county courts’ family divisions

Michigan was previously one of a handful of states which allowed the public unfettered access to juvenile records; the state also retained a relatively obscure, decades-old system of obtaining expungements, which often cost prospective applicants hundreds of dollars in paperwork and representation fees.

Michigan has also expanded eligibility for several federal benefits programs to people who have previously been adjudicated or convicted of some drug-related offenses.

The Michigan state capitol building in Lansing. Image via San906/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-1.0)

Interestingly, Michigan’s criminal justice reforms were a largely bipartisan effort. While conservatives have, traditionally, been less willing to present themselves as “soft on crime,” several of Michigan’s most prominent Republican lawmakers sponsored and voted in favor of many of the proposals.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), for instance, said the packages’ passage is a great example of a Congress “putting people before politics” by “adopting smart reforms like these to hold people accountable without setting them up to fail.”

Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) maintained that each proposal was grounded in facts.

“This is not reactionary policy—it’s thought and purposeful,” he said. “These bills are rooted in data, informed by research, and build on the consensus and compromise of a diverse group of stakeholders.”

Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, notes that an unusual convergence of interests and individuals supported the state’s efforts at reform, including law enforcement lobbyists, business organizations, victims’ rights groups, incarcerated persons, and Republicans and Democrats alike.

Jacobs, says, opined the wide-ranging support likely stems from recognition of the fact that people who are allowed to move on from their mistakes and live productive, meaningful lives are less likely to turn back to crime or violence.

“If you believe in redemption,” Jacobs said, “once you paid your dues to society, society shouldn’t put up even more barriers to helping then become a contributing member of society. It was a perfect alignment of a lot of different stars to make this happen this year.”

However, some Michiganders believe there’s yet more work to do. Incoming House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) said he is planning to advocate for more reform in the upcoming congressional term.

Wentworth, a former police officer, also said he hopes that the Legislature can begin dialogue on how best to improve interactions and facilitate trust between law enforcement personnel and the wider public.

“I think there’s definitely merit in the discussion,” Wentworth said. “I think we have to educate, or at least have a discussion on how do we better equip law enforcement, how do we better support law enforcement to do their jobs sufficiently and effectively serve their community.”


Here’s a full list of newly signed bills expanding criminal justice reform in Michigan

Michigan lawmakers made big inroads on criminal justice reform, but advocates say there’s more to be done

Whitmer signs bills lightening traffic offense penalties, shortening jail, parole protocol

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