State laying plans to put new criminal justice laws to work

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — For the 18 criminal justice revamp bills signed by Gov. Rick Snyder last month, the next step is making the changes necessary throughout Michigan’s criminal justice system to spur them into action.

The updates to the state’s criminal justice system as a whole are meant to signal an emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation, as well as reducing recidivism and streamlining the system. This mostly involves incorporating more evidence-driven programs, or initiatives that have proved successful elsewhere.

Most of the bills will take effect on June 28.  Several of the bills will take effect starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Chris Gautz, a communications officer for the Department of Corrections, said the framework is being laid for a number of the new changes – especially those involving more complex issues and systems.

The process of coming up with the details of programming and policies the department must create under the new laws will depend on what entities are involved in that specific bill, Gautz said.

For some, Corrections is the only entity involved. In those cases, the department has its own policy review teams, in which staff from different parts of the department “come together and create recommendations to be reviewed by those at a higher level,” Gautz said.

Gautz said Corrections has been asking staff members to come up with a list of individuals they recommend the department should work with to draft some of the new policy changes. These individuals, he said, work directly on the issues addressed by the new laws.

That way, “we get the best possible thoughts and ideas from those on the frontlines who do that work,” Gautz said.

For other bills that involve other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the court system, the department has to consult and coordinate with them.

Either way, evidence-based practices will be prioritized. Gautz said Corrections consults with, among other research groups, the National Institute of Corrections to learn about programs and policies that other states have implemented, what their results have been, what has worked well and whether those would work well in Michigan.

“We talk with our counterparts in other states all the time and share ideas,” Gautz said.

The new Recidivism Reduction Act, for example, will require Corrections and local agencies receiving state funding to establish policies, rules and regulations within four years to better supervise parolees and probationers, Gautz said. These practices will be based on those that have successfully reduced recidivism in other states around the country.

Another new law aimed at prison reform calls for the department to create youthful-minded rehabilitation programming – specifically geared toward 18-to 20-year-old inmates – with the goal of keeping inmates from coming back to prison after their release. Corrections is then required to report on certain information about the programming they come up with.

“We don’t have any specific plans yet” for the programs themselves, Gautz said. “We will take some time to learn what other states are doing.”

Among the legislation that primarily affects the court system is a law that places a 30-day limit on the amount of time a judge can sentence a probation violator for a technical violation.

Technical violations do not include new crimes committed while on probation, said Judge Thomas Cameron, who serves on Wayne County Circuit Court. Some common examples of technical violations are testing positive for marijuana or missing an appointment with a probation officer.

“What this legislation does is address technical violators who are not alleged to commit new criminal conduct, but instead violate their probation in some other way,” Cameron said.

“In those cases, it standardizes judicial discretion and focuses on rehabilitation,” he said. “These folks would, instead of possibly going to prison for a technical violation, in most cases be allowed to continue on probation with additional treatment and perhaps a brief period of jail incarceration.”

Cameron said this also ensures the availability of bed space for violent offenders, and prevents nonviolent offenders or offenders that haven’t committed new crimes from being unnecessarily incarcerated. In the long run, he said, this saves taxpayers’ money.

Judge Thomas Boyd, who serves on the Ingham County District Court, disagrees with this new part of the legislation.

“I don’t know what motivated the Legislature to create that concept,” Boyd said in regards to the 30-day limit on incarcerating parole violators, which he said “reduces the judge’s discretion to treat every individual defendant as an individual.”

Cameron, on the other hand, said he supports the policy changes across the board. This including the creation of the new Parole Sanction Certainty Act, as well as the designation of the existing Swift and Sure probation sanctioning program as a specialty court.

“We appreciate the Legislature’s efforts prioritizing rehabilitation and efficiency in the criminal justice system,” Cameron said. “For years, Michigan courts have supported legislative efforts in specialty courts that divert nonviolent offenders from unnecessary incarceration.”

Some of the other policies, Gautz said, require Corrections to regularly send out reports detailing specific bits of data the department will be collecting once these changes are fully implemented.

“So it would just be a matter of writing the report before the deadline,” Gautz said, although some of the reports impose new requirements about the data the department should include.

Examples of these include a law that will require Corrections to submit a quarterly report to the House and Senate about the number of current prisoners eligible for parole.