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Court: Unconstitutional to keep Truth in Sentencing repeal initiative off ballot

Photo inside a prison.

A federal district judge says it is unconstitutional for the state of Michigan to insist that the organizers of a proposed ballot initiative meet the usual state deadline for filing signatures.

Judge Matthew Leitman notes that SawariMedia, the organizer of an initiative to repeal Michigan's Truth in Sentencing law, was "well on its way to collecting a sufficient number of signatures (340,000) to place its initiative on the November 2020 ballot.....and then the world changed."

The judge agreed that Governor Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration in early March, orders restricting large gatherings later in the month, and finally, her March 23rd Stay-at-Home order made it impossible for the initiative to collect enough signatures by the deadline of May 27.

Leitman granted the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, but allowed the state to choose the means by which it will allow the initiative access to the November ballot.

If, for example, the state decides to hold to the 340,000 signature requirement, it could provide the plaintiffs an extra 60 days to gather signatures.

There was no immediate response to the ruling from Governor Whitmer or the Michigan Secretary of State, which was also sued.

The initiative seeks to repeal Michigan's strict Truth in Sentencing law, which requires those convicted of crimes to serve the full minimum sentence, without opportunities to reduce those sentences by means of good behavior or other actions.

Organizers say the law results in overcrowded prisons, which has placed inmates at risk of becoming ill or dying from COVID-19.  They say the law also keeps people in prison long after they no longer pose a threat to public safety, costing the state taxpayer large sums of money.

Most prosecuting attorneys in the state support Truth in Sentencing, primarily because it provides peace of mind for victims, as well as making the sentencing process transparent.

The decision to grant a preliminary injunction on behalf of Truth in Sentencing repeal organizers follows a similar decision by Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens, who granted the backers of Fair and Equal Michigan, an LGBT rights initiative, an extra 69 days to gather signatures.

Three candidates for office also won their cases against the state, claiming the executive orders shutting down much of the state impaired their ability to gather enough signatures to appear on the August primary ballot.  The lawsuits were filed by Republican U.S. House candidate Eric Esshaki, Oakland County 47th District Court Judge candidate Matt Savish, and Wayne County Third Circuit Judge candidate Diana Bear.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.