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State Sen. Sylvia Santana says more justice system reform needed in 2021

Hands gripping jail cell bars

Michigan lawmakers passed numerous bills in 2020 to make the state's justice system more fair and rational. The new laws are the result of a bipartisan criminal justice reform task force created by Governor Gretchen Whitmer last year.

Judges will no longer be permitted to impose jail time for people who have failed to pay fines associated with a previous crime simply because they could not afford to pay.

Law enforcement officers will have more discretion as regards arrests for lesser crimes. A new law will allow them to issue court appearance tickets instead.

First time DUI offenders will be able to ask a court to expunge the record of the offense if they meet certain requirements. And sentencing guidelines and probation periods were relaxed for some crimes.

But State Senator Sylvia Santana (D), long an advocate for justice system reform, says there are a number of important problems the state should still address.

One is that 1200 people remain locked up in state prisons for the primary offense of possessing or possessing/distributing marijuana. Santana says that's not fair, given that Michigan voters chose to make marijuana possession and use legal in 2018.

But her bill to shorten the sentences of people serving for marijuana drug offenses did not move out of the Republican-controlled committee to which it had been assigned in 2020. She says she'll re-introduce the bill again in 2021.

Santana also believes Michigan's Truth in Sentencing law, and its habitual offender law, should be changed. Truth in Sentencing requires people to serve their full minimum sentence before they are eligible to be considered for parole.

She says that, combined with the habitual offender law, can create extremely long and overly punitive sentences, that serve no purpose in ensuring rehabilitation or public safety.

"An individual could not have committed a crime in fifteen plus years, and that could be brought back to enhance their sentence for a recent offense," says Santana. "I think that's not something that we should be doing as a  state."

Advocates like Safe and Just Michigan note that long sentences, combined with truth in sentencing and habitual offender laws have resulted in thousands of inmates still serving time in their 50s for crimes they committed as very young adults.  

The group says these individuals pose a very low risk of recividism, because it's so common for people to mature and age out of criminal behavior.

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.
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