Note: This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance
Last fall, I wrote a column about the mixed emotions of being a Detroit Lions fan and a criminal justice reform advocate. A lot—I mean, A LOT—has changed since then, but two things have not: the Detroit Lions are still losing and criminal justice is still winning.
The ‘Honolulu blues’ of Lions fandom has actually been a reassuring return to normalcy this fall amidst a world that is far from routine right now. But we’re only two games into the season and a lot could change (you hear that child-like optimism?), so I’ve still got my hope. And I guess you can blame all the positive momentum on justice reforms for continuing to reinforce the idea that hope, if strategically invested and paired with hard work, can pay dividends.
Getting Michigan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years old was one of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s biggest wins in 2019. It took four years, three legislative sessions and a lot of determination and negotiation to get it done. But the groundwork and the incremental progress helped set the stage for the Legislature’s current embrace of sweeping justice reforms.
Just look at the legislative schedule for this week.
On Tuesday, the Senate Families, Seniors, and Veterans Committee passed Senate Bill 1006, a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Ananich that would prohibit the current lifetime ban on food assistance based on certain felony convictions. The League has been working on this issue for several years, as making food assistance accessible to more justice-involved individuals is key to helping them get back on their feet.
In fact, full eligibility for SNAP benefits among drug offenders decreases the probability of returning to prison within one year by 13.1%. And as we wrote in our testimony for the Senate committee hearing, “The ban unfairly extends punishment long after individuals have served their sentences, and systemic factors in employment, healthcare, and law enforcement mean that people with disabilities, particularly disabled people of color, are overrepresented both among the food-insecure population and in justice system involvement.”
And later that day, the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee began discussion of House Bills 4488-4493 and voted to pass Senate Bill 293 to make it easier for people with a criminal record to attain an occupational license. Reforming the occupational license process is more relevant than ever as COVID-19-related unemployment and economic struggles continue for many workers.
On Wednesday, along with finalizing the 2021 state budget, the full Senate voted to pass Senate Bills 681 and 682 and House Bills 4980–4985 to expand, simplify, and in many cases, automate the state’s adult and juvenile criminal record expungement process. Expanded and automatic criminal record expungement is a way to significantly improve the lives of individuals while strengthening our workforce as a whole and supporting our businesses, and these bills give thousands of Michigan residents a long-awaited clean slate and a new lease on life. And just like Raise the Age, immature decisions and juvenile records should not follow kids for the rest of their lives—it is a disservice to their rehabilitation and redemption.
On the House side, two different bill packages borne out of the Jail Task Force began to move. Also on Wednesday, the full House voted to pass House Bills 5844 and 5854-5857 to eliminate mandatory jail sentences for certain violations, helping keep people out of jail for minor offenses. And on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to pass House Bills 5846-5853, bills that would eliminate driver’s license suspensions for offenses not related to dangerous driving.
Reforming driver’s license suspensions has been another big issue for the League. Driving without a valid license (including a suspended license) is the third most-common reason for jail admission in Michigan. By strictly penalizing drivers for reasons unrelated to safe driving or stemming from unpaid traffic tickets, Michigan law shuts out Michiganders from financial stability and security, criminalizing poverty instead.
A piece we put out last week noted that in 2010, nearly 400,000 licenses were suspended for failure to appear or nonpayment—80% of all license suspensions that year—and only 5% of all suspensions were related to dangerous driving. This number has not reduced substantially over the last decade, with Michigan issuing approximately 360,000 driver’s license suspensions each year because drivers failed to appear in court or pay legal fines and fees.
The League’s analysis on driver’s license suspensions also looked at the dramatically different experiences and punishments by race. Bias in traffic stops contributes to Black drivers being more likely than White drivers to be ticketed and to serve jail time for driving without a valid license. Driver’s license suspension reform will not address the racial disparities we see in Michigan’s traffic stops, but it will allow hundreds of thousands of drivers to stay on the roads and continue to work by halting a cycle that stems from unpaid tickets and the debt that can quickly accrue.
During these difficult times, the Legislature’s bipartisan, concerted effort to address barriers to much-needed employment and food assistance for justice-involved Michiganders offers a ray of hope for former offenders struggling to get back on their feet during COVID times. These bills also strike an important blow for equity for Black and Brown Michiganders and those with disabilities, who are all dramatically overrepresented in the justice system.
There’s certainly a lot for criminal justice advocates, justice-involved individuals and their families, and Michigan employers to be happy about this week. But while a slew of good bills have started to move, none of these reforms have been fully passed into law. In Lions games and policy battles, I’ve seen great efforts stall out on the goal line and the clock hit zero. We have to keep the advocacy up to make sure these great proposals become great laws before the legislative session ends in December.