Lansing Watchdog: Bipartisanship Drives Criminal-Justice Reform

POST BY Shelli Weisberg Legislative Director

ACLU at the Michigan Capitol – November 2, 2015

Bipartisanship is flourishing lately. Not so much among our elected officials – unsurprising given that legislative transformation traditionally lags behind public opinion -- but rather among some significant advocacy groups in some very critical areas of public policy, most notably criminal justice reform and citizen privacy in the age of high-tech digital surveillance. 

In Michigan this fall, bills have been introduced to address criminal justice issues such as presumptive parole – a proposed policy which would require that inmates who have served their minimum sentence be subject to release unless they present specified risks to public safety. Currently, the parole guidelines allow the parole board wide discretion to deny release based on any number of unspecified, unrelated, and often subjective allegations. The bill, HB 4138 sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise (R- Plymouth Twp.), passed the Michigan House with overwhelming support from Gov. Snyder and a bi-partisan group of advocates that includes the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending, the ACLU, US Justice Action Network -- whose funders include the Koch brothers -- and Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.

Even so, the bill is stuck in the Senate due to a deceptive campaign led by Attorney General Bill Schuette and the many local prosecutors. 

An issue that is garnering bi-partisan support is about to be introduced in Michigan by Senator Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge). Senator Jones is unabashedly conservative and, as a former sherriff, touts his “tough on crime” credentials.  However, Senator Jones has been working with a politically diverse group to advance criminal-justice reform, including a concept called “clean slate” that would allow convicted individuals a fair chance at reentering society.  “Clean slate” would permit courts to shield misdemeanor and certain felony records from public view (but not from law enforcement) in instances where an individual has avoided any criminal activity for the past five to 10 years. Compared to some other states, Michigan has a generous expungement law, but many former inmates can’t easily access the courts or afford a lawyer to seek an expungement of their records, and many judges categorically refuse to expunge criminal records.  The “clean slate” act would bypass these obstacles. 

In the surveillance arena, the right and the left edges have long been sounding the alarm over unfettered NSA surveillance, DOJ financing of Stingray to surreptitiously collect cell phone data, and protecting individual privacy in the face of advanced technology such as UAS (drones) and body-worn cameras.  In Michigan, the ACLU is working with several conservative legislators to help shape policy that addresses the limits of domestic UAS use. We are also pushing for legislation to require that law enforcement have internal policies to protect individual privacy while remaining transparent to public oversight in their use of body-worn cameras. These negotiations around policy development require balancing many concerns and responsibilities. We're encouraged by the robust discussions, most of which have been sparked by the alliance of unusual right/left coalition partners. 

We can only hope that this newfound bipartisanship will continue to flourish even as it makes its way into our state legislature.