LANSING, Mich.–A bipartisan majority of the Michigan Senate Dec. 12 passed a historic package of three sentencing reform bills–HB 5394 (H-3), HB 5395 (H-2) and HB 6510 (H-1)–that eliminates most of the state’s draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The reform allows judges to impose sentences based on a range of factors in each case, rather than solely drug weight, and replaces lifetime probation for the lowest-level offenders with a five-year probationary period, said activists who favored the legislation.
The bills also permit earlier parole for some prisoners, at the discretion of the parole board. Gov. John Engler is expected to sign the bills.
State Rep. Bill McConico (D-Detroit), sponsor of the bills, said, “This major step brings fairness back to the judicial system in Michigan. The overwhelming bipartisan support for this legislation shows it is not a partisan issue. We were able to unite Republicans, Democrats, prosecutors, judges and families in the common cause of sentencing justice. Now we can reunite families, reallocate resources and allow judges to do their job.”
William Van Regenmorter, Republican chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, endorsed the legislation, said, “We want to make sure the sentence fits the crime while still maximizing public safety.”
“We applaud Michigan’s lawmakers for taking a principled stand on this important issue,” said Laura Sager, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a non-profit organization that spearheaded the drive for reform. “This vote restores confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system. Harsh mandatory minimums, originally intended to target drug “king pins” have instead warehoused many nonviolent, low-level drug offenders at a very high cost to taxpayers,” she said.
“Today is the culmination of years of grassroots lobbying efforts by thousands of our members affected by mandatory minimums that were among the harshest in the nation. These families brought the human face of sentencing injustices to lawmakers and convinced members of both parties that change was urgently needed,” Ms. Sager said.
“The reforms could not have been done without FAMM,” said State Rep. McConico. The bills garnered widespread support from organizations as diverse as the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, the Michigan Judicial Association, the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals, the Michigan Catholic Conference, Michigan’s Children, and the NAACP (Detroit Branch), among many others.
“Michigan’s prosecutors recognize that an effective drug policy is a combination of criminal justice strategies, readily available drug treatment programs, incarceration where appropriate, and prevention activities in schools, businesses, and homes,” said David Morse, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. “That is why we support a responsible approach to replacing the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes with sentences that are appropriate for the crime.”
Members of the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals (MADCP) worked hard for the bills. Judge Harvey Hoffman, president of the Association, led the effort because “the bills preserve reasonable judicial discretion while providing certainty of punishment for high-level offenders.”
Lawrence Reed, president of the free-market Mackinac Center on Public Policy, noted that the bills are “consistent with principles supported by the organization, including judicial discretion and cost-effective and flexible sentencing structures. They are also part of the solution to Michigan’s skyrocketing corrections cost.”
The reforms also had the strong support of former Michigan Republican Governor William G. Milliken, who called signing mandatory minimum drug sentences into law in 1978 “the worst mistake of my career” and campaigned for their repeal, said FAMM.
In 1998, Families Against Mandatory Minimums led a successful drive to relax the “650 Lifer Law,” the toughest drug law in the nation. That law mandated life without parole for anyone convicted of delivery or conspiracy to deliver 650 grams or more of heroin or cocaine, according to FAMM.