State ramps up opioid response

Capital News Service

LANSING — Last October, President Donald Trump called the nation’s opioid crisis a public emergency.

Now, six months after his announcement, Michigan has taken more steps to strengthen the state’s battle against opioids.

“The news has definitely been reporting on the opioid crisis for a while now, and, yes, it continues,” said Monica Gonzalez-Walker, the clinical implementation and engagement manager of Michigan OPEN — the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network.

Data published by the governor’s office says the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed has decreased by 10.7 percent since 2015. For the first time since 2011, the total number of controlled substance prescriptions dispensed in Michigan dropped to below 20 million.

“The decrease is a result of our partnerships and collective efforts to raise awareness among patients and health professionals,” said Shelly Edgerton, the director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “We, along with our partners, will continue our targeted education and outreach efforts to fight back against this devastating public health crisis.”

In 2015, 10,833,681 opioid prescriptions were written in Michigan, contrasted with 6,670,989 in 2017.

“These figures are promising indicators for our continuing efforts against the opioid epidemic in Michigan,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. That means “less potentially addictive opioids in our communities.”

Calley chaired the governor’s Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force.

To continue that trend, he said there’s a need for “a conscientious approach to prescribing and dispensing while managing care for patients.”

Even before Trump’s announcement on the opioid crisis, Rep. Joseph Bellino Jr., R-Monroe, had introduced legislation to assist in Michigan’s battle against opioids.

“My district got opioids early — 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s everywhere in the United States. It’s affected my family — I lost a cousin. It affected my work. It affecting my community, my school. It’s hurt all of us.”

Last December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Bellino’s bill that restricts the amount of opioid prescriptions given to children.

“My bill says if you’re a minor, you have to have your parent or guardian’s signature OK’ed for the doctor or provider to give you an opioid for pain, Bellino said.

Several other restrictions on opioids will be put into place later this year. On June 1, health care providers must be registered in the Mandatory Michigan Automated Prescription System before prescribing controlled substances.

As of July 1, doctors treating patients with acute pain won’t be able to prescribe more than a seven-day supply of an opioid within a seven-day period.

More alternatives needed for criminal suspects with mental health problems, advocates say

Capital News Service

LANSING — As more communities in Michigan join the fight for jail diversion programs for inmates with special needs, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said he hopes it will soon become a mainstream program.

The Snyder administration created a diversion program to reduce the number of people with  special needs entering Michigan’s corrections system.

“It was informal in the beginning, and then we formalized it part way through our first term,” Calley said. “I served as a chair of the diversion council, and its mental health diversion. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The program works with pilot committees from counties across the state that want mental health-related changes in corrections facilities

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach,” Calley said. “So a person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they’re found guilty, they go to jail or go to prison.

“But if a person committed a crime because they have a mental illness that was untreated, I think the criminal justice response needs to be different. It has to include evaluation of what the root cause of the problem was and treat them. That still might some include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” he said.

Now five years after establishment of the initiative, Calley said he hopes diversion programs will become more mainstream.  

“Right now, it’s in about a dozen communities in the state — trying to prove out the concepts that treating mental illness is better than throwing people in jail who have mental illness,” he said. “It has the same potential that treating addiction has.”

Rich Thiemkey, the chief executive officer of the Barry County Community Mental Health Authority, one of the agencies that maintain a diversion program, foresees diversion programs increasing.

But he said changes to funding and stigmas are needed to further help those with mental illnesses.

“Number one is just stigma, or how people view people with a mental illness,” he said. “And then the second part would be funding of individuals that are in the jail.”

With funding an issue, his agency is constantly looking for grants to help fund the treatment of mental health patients.

One such grant enables the agency to screen individuals for substance abuse and mental health disorders, he said. Some receive services in the jail and some who are diverted will be treated at the agency’s facility.

Thiemkey said that’s called “post-booking because the diversions happen after they walk into the jail. So what we’re trying to focus on this upcoming year is pre-booking.”

Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is one of the biggest diversion programs in the state.

“We have a strict definition of diversion, which is when a mental health worker intervenes, usually with a judge, to come to an alternative disposition, which usually means a bond reduction,” said Robert Butkiewicz, the supervisor of programs at the agency. “Sometimes that means sending someone to a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes it is coordinating care with an adult foster care provider so the person can be safe.”

According to Butkiewicz, people can be eligible for these diversion programs if they are being charged with a misdemeanor.

“When we talk about mental health diversion, we have to separate that from legal diversion,” he said. “Mental health diversion relates to alternatives to incarceration. A legal diversion relates to alternatives to criminal prosecution.

Butkiewicz said the diversion system needs improvements.

For example, he said laws “should be more focused on treatment. If you’re poor and are roped in the legal system, you can hardly pay next month’s rent. You have a $25 oversight fee. You have a $300 legal fee. You have a $100 this and that. And for those who are really poor, you get locked in.”


Michigan reversing prison population boom of ‘90s

Capital News Service

LANSING — Following the closing of some correctional facilities in recent years, the size of Michigan’s prison population is at its lowest in two decades.

Criminal justice experts, however say, there’s still more to be done.

John Cooper, the policy director for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a nonprofit public policy organization, said the Department of Corrections’ current recidivism rate of 28 percent isn’t a good measurement of what’s going on in the criminal justice system.

“To have 28 percent of people who got out of prison return still is a very high rate,” Cooper said. “We don’t want anybody to be going back to prison.”

Earlier this year, the department reported that the prison population is below 40,000 for the first time since 1992.

Cooper said there are a number of reasons for that development, including low crime rates, fewer people going to prison and high parole rates.

However, there’s a need for improvement.

“Michigan has a very punitive system,” Cooper said, adding that the state has the longest average length of imprisonment in the country, with an average minimum sentence of  almost 10 years.

“About 13 percent of the prison population in Michigan will never be released because they are serving life sentences,” Cooper said.

A recent law sponsored by Sen. Steven Bieda D-Warren, eliminates the requirement that repeat drug offenders get an increased sentence, up to life in prison without parole. Instead, prisoners would be eligible for parole after serving five years of their sentence.

When it comes to offenders with mental illness, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the justice response needs to be different.

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach. A person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they are found guilty of a crime, they go to jail or prison,” Calley said.

If a person commits a crime because of an untreated mental illness that might include developmental disabilities, addiction or anything that changes the way that the brain works, the justice system response should include evaluation and treatment, he said.

“That still might include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” Calley said.


He heads the Snyder administration’s mental health diversion council that works with sheriffs, prosecutors and judges on programs intended to provide treatment rather than jail for arrestees with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Cooper, of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said Michigan doesn’t have  a compassionate release policy for medical parole.

“Many aging prisoners and sick people are not allowed to be released to medical facilities that are more appropriate,” he said. “These are very old and sick people who are no longer a threat to society.”

A set of bills pending in the Legislature would create a compassionate release policy. The bipartisan package is sponsored by a number of representatives including David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, and  Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg.

In terms of re-entry into the community, Cooper said it’s hard to get a job with a criminal record. The unemployment rate for people with a criminal record is 67 percent.

“There are legal barriers to getting employment for people who have been formerly incarcerated. Many employers do not want to hire someone who has a criminal record,” he said.

And at the same time, it’s hard to find housing. “Private landlords can decide to not rent their property, and there are also limitations on the availability of certain government assistance if you’ve got a criminal record,” Cooper said.

The underlying problem is that most people who go to prison don’t have any work history or a high school diploma, he said. If they don’t get an education and/or job skills while they are in prison, it’s going to be hard for them to get a job when they get out.

“The department understands this and is trying to do the best it can,” Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has created jobs and trade skills training programs and so far, these programs are producing good results, according to reports on the department’s website.

Calley, the lieutenant governor, said that when the criminal justice system started treating addiction, it had a profound impact, and mental diversion programs have the same potential that treating addiction had in improving recidivism outcomes.

“Throwing people in jail does not treat addiction, does not cure addiction. It’s not a willpower issue, it’s a health care issue,” he said. “If we start treating mental health effectively and connect people to gainful employment at the same time, recidivism rates will go even lower.”

Withdrawal drugs, banned in Michigan prisons, show promise elsewhere

Capital News Service

LANSING — New evidence by Brown University and a recently announced federal investigation may lead to more states allowing the use of addiction treatment medications to prisoners struggling with substance abuse behind bars.

Currently, Rhode Island is the only state that provides its inmates with all three FDA-approved addiction medications — methadone, buprenorphine and a form of naltrexone called Vivitrol.

Brown University researchers concluded that providing inmates with medication to treat addiction not only reduces overdose deaths after they’re released but increases inmates’ chances of avoiding arrest in the future.

In Michigan, the use of such medications by drug-addicted inmates is prohibited.

“When an inmate comes in, we screen them to see if they’re on anything,” Lt. Ebony Simmons-Rasco of the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department said.

“And if they are on anything, they put them on a withdrawal protocol, which means they go and check their vitals because they’re not going to get anything. A lot of drugs aren’t allowed in the facility,” Simmons-Rasco said.

She said those inmates are put into a withdrawal program and monitored for fluid intake, vital signs and behavioral changes.

However, methadone, which is itself addictive, can be used in Michigan if an inmate is pregnant and needs the medication.

Simmons-Rasco said one reason drugs are restricted is because people lie.

“The problem that we have in prisons is when you administer drugs to some people, people lie,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m on this, and I need to be on the withdrawal protocol.’”

Then when they get such medication as methadone, inmates may keep it in their mouths, she said. “We have a problem with people hoarding meds, so that’s why certain medications aren’t allowed in the facility.”

Muskegon Correctional Facility Sgt. Alexander Thompson agrees with Simmons-Rasco and said he doesn’t see Michigan changing its policies regarding substance withdrawal medication in its prisons.

“My experience with what this particular problem presents is not them gaining the medication and getting out,” Thompson said. “It’s them getting out of prison and affording the medication when they’re out in society.

“It’s the key contributing factor. In our facility, we can monitor medication in a very controlled environment. But when they’re out of here, their willingness or ability is drastically reduced,” he said.

Jenn Thompson is very familiar with substance addiction.

Thompson struggled with hard drugs for five years. She had hit rock bottom after she was arrested for possessing cocaine with the intent to sell it. She was released from jail after serving one weekend and was placed on probation. Then a friend overdosed while the two were snorting cocaine.

She had no rent money, but had plenty of cocaine. She called her dad, confessed and asked for help.

“I had just turned 21,” she said. “I relapsed once and cleaned up. At 22 — pregnant. And never went back.”

Thompson, who is now an advocate against drug use and has been clean since 2003, said she firmly believes medication should be available to any inmate suffering from addiction.

“They should get medicine for safe withdrawal,” she said. “Opiates and alcohol have deadly withdrawals — literally deadly for some. And then skills and strategies to not reuse on release. It is cruel and unusual punishment to not give a person medical treatment for withdrawal.”

May a diversified force be with us, police say

By Gloria Nzeka

Capital News Service

LANSING — As police departments across the state are recruiting their next class of officers and deputies, they’re confronted with the lack of diversity within their ranks.

Some local departments, including the Holland Police Department, are actively recruiting a more diverse group of recruits.

Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said that for some reason, it’s very difficult to attract people to the profession.

“Diversity is something we are striving for, we’re working very hard to get there. The problem within a lot of communities and even among women is that the profession is just not attractive,”  Stevenson said.

David Ceci, director of the Oakland Police Academy in Auburn Hills, said diversity is more than what people often make of it.

“We often get stuck on ‘it’s black and white’ but diversity is greater than just that. We’ve got to look at gender, sexuality and religion. Those are all aspects that we need to focus on,” Ceci said.

The state Commission on Law Enforcement Standards has over 50 positions it’s recruiting for. To attract a diverse pool of applicants, police officials have been visiting schools, colleges and universities.

Stevenson, of the Association of Chiefs of Police, said one factor that limits efforts to make police departments better reflect Michigan’s diverse population is the cost of training to become a cop.

While the State Police covers training costs for its recruits, local police departments don’t.

“Many police departments cannot afford to send someone to the police academy,” Stevenson said. “They have to hire someone who has already put themselves through the police academy, which costs between $5,000 to $6,000 for tuition, and it takes 14 weeks to get through it.”

Besides tuition and books, students still need to purchase uniforms, firearms and other necessities. And that can come up to $7,000 or $8,000 for students to pay their way through the academy, Ceci said.

“There aren’t many candidates who can afford to spend that kind of money and time, especially in some minority communities,” Stevenson said. However, he said, the Association of Chiefs of Police looked at what other states have done, and the state could pick up the cost for a local police recruit’s training.

Adding to the cost of education is the loss of wages because most people can’t work while going through the academy. It’s time-consuming, said Ceci. If they do work, it’s usually part time.

Ceci said the career is demanding and people don’t necessarily want to give up weekends or holidays to work.

“It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day, all day.” He also said that some of the expected perks  in law enforcement aren’t there. “Nationwide, not just in law enforcement, not just in Michigan pensions and health care benefits are being reduced and are going away.”

Ceci said there’s a need for better recruiting. “We need to start younger —  getting into schools with children at a young age so that they can see a positive police figure. Maybe that will change some perceptions earlier in the experiences of children.”

The Holland Police Department has put in place initiatives that expose local youth to careers in law enforcement.

Capt. Keith Mulder said the department’s Junior Police Academy and Citizens Police Academy are programs aimed at exposing youth and adults from diverse backgrounds to such careers.

“The Junior Police Academy targets junior high school students in our community, with many of them being from different ethnic backgrounds,” Mulder said. “It promotes teamwork, character, commitment and fitness, and exposes them to different aspects of law enforcement and our department.”

He also said Holland officers are involved in the schools, mentoring students and working with organizations that promote good life choices, education, professional direction and character among minority groups.

The Holland Police Department’s strategy to address the issue of diversity is recruiting at a variety of colleges with criminal justice programs, Mulder said.

The department also runs a cadet program, which is a part-time job for college students who want to go into criminal justice. Recruits come from high schools in the area and get experience and exposure to what a career in law enforcement is all about, he said.

A recent study found a lack of diversity in the Ann Arbor Police Department. At the time of the study, the department had 122 officers. Only 22.9 percent were female, and 17.2 percent belonged to an ethnic group other than white.

The report, by independent consulting firm Hillard Heintze, prompted the department to develop plans that include having a diverse mix of recruits.

Howell Police Chief George Basar said that what’s shown in the media may contribute to a lack of diversity.

Police officers in some minority communities do “some incredibly stupid things, which paint the entire profession with a broad brush,” said Basar, a past president of the Association of Chiefs of Police.

Ceci, of the Oakland Police Academy, said news stories paint a negative picture of police-community relations always being a race-related issue, and that deters some minority candidates who might want to get into the field.

The current divide isn’t all the police’s fault or all the community’s fault, he said. “I think it’s a little bit of both.

“Both sides need to come to the table and be willing to listen and learn a little bit about each other. I think that will help greatly in improving perceptions of law enforcement, and in turn, increase our recruitment prospects in diverse communities,” he said.

Sex ed would include all the details about consent


Capital News Service

LANSING — As the nation deals with widespread sexual assault reports, Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, has introduced a bill that would require schools to teach affirmative consent in sexual education classes.

The bill, referred to as the “Yes Means Yes” bill, would ensure schools teach what a healthy dating relationship looks like, the setting of personal boundaries and the underlying elements of consent.

“As the father of three sons, I think it’s really important that young men know that consent is something that’s ongoing,” Cochran said. “It’s not something that is given. It’s not because you’re dating someone that implies consent.”

Cochran and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, have tried for several years to improve sexual education and understanding of consent.

In 2015, Hertel and Cochran introduced bills pertaining to affirmative consent, but it didn’t gain any traction.

But they didn’t give up on improving how consent is taught in Michigan. Hertel introduced another consent bill last year that is still pending in the Senate Education Committee.

“Given the recent upsurge in campus sexual assault cases, it’s clear that our current statute simply doesn’t put enough emphasis on what consent means,” Hertel said. “Teaching our kids about affirmative consent is a great first step in the fight against the epidemic of sexual assault.”

Cochran’s most recent bill focuses less on saying “no” and more on recognizing consent.

“It’s important because we’ve taught that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ but we need to shift from that. Currently, this teaching doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.

“Young women — college-aged — are four times more likely than any other group to face sexual assault. We need to be talking about affirmative sexual consent and what a healthy relationship looks like,” he said.

Kathy Hagenian, the executive policy director of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence based in Okemos, agrees that schools should go beyond just teaching “no” means “no.”

“We need to teach that healthy relationships, by definition, require respect, understanding boundaries and obtaining consent,” she said. “Educating teens about consent and open communication in regards to physical intimacy in relationships does not promote sexual activity — in fact, research and experience shows the opposite is true.”

Co-sponsors include Rep. Scott Diandra, D-Calumet.

The bill would amend the sexual education curriculum by mandating that school districts focus less on the saying “no” approach and more on recognizing what consent is. It would also promote student understanding of how to set limits and how to recognize a dangerous situation while providing instruction on respectful dating relationships and setting personal boundaries.

Cochran said, “We need to be talking about consent. It needs to be comprehensive. It needs to be a subject that can be linked to the conversation. We are making some headway, but the reality is people are having sexual relationships and they need to be taught.”

He said, “And they need to be taught in their K-12 education before they get on these college campuses.”

Cochran said the bill doesn’t specify what grades should teach consent and sexual education. That would be up to individual school districts.

“Certainly, 5th grade, that’s much too young to learn about sexual education,” Cochran said. “But young people are having relationships in middle school and, certainly, in high school. It helps them to understand what the idea is behind domestic and dating violence.”

With recent well-publicized sexual assault cases in Michigan — most prominently at Michigan State University — David Crim, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, said the union is deeply concerned for the safety of the students, both in K-12 and at colleges and universities.

The MEA will continue to advocate and support measures to help ensure their safety, Crim said.

“Given the terrible crimes committed by (former sports Dr.) Larry Nassar at MSU, as well as other sexual assaults in schools,” Crim said, “we need to take these situations seriously.”  

Cochran’s bill is awaiting action in the House Education Reform Committee.

Police body cameras have friends and foes

Capital News Service

LANSING – Although a privacy law that regulates police body cameras took effect in January, some departments around the state remain skeptical of what they say is an expensive tool not worth the money.

About 40 to 50 law enforcement departments in the state have adopted body cameras, estimated Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, although no one keeps statistics.  

Many law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about adopting cameras.

One problem is the tremendous cost, said Dave Hiller, the executive director of the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents many police officers.

He said police do welcome the body camera as another tool that is beneficial in doing their jobs,  

but it’s not cheap, and storing video from the cameras is expensive.

“When you start to multiply that by the number of officers in your department, you can see the cost goes up,” Hiller said.

No guidelines for the use of body cameras have been issued on a statewide level, he said. “We encourage and suggest that any department equipped with body cameras develop a use policy, absolutely.”

The Macomb County Sheriff’s Department implemented body cameras last April.

Lt. Tina Old said cameras cost about $1,100 each and are used to support deputies’ written reports, help collect evidence, facilitate investigations and provide feedback for training.  

“The sheriff’s office wanted to be transparent with the public,” Old said. Recordings could provide “objective evidentiary value in investigations” and serve to reinforce the public’s trust by preserving factual accounts of interactions.

The recordings can be used to maximize the safety of officers and improve service to the community, she said. She said the department hasn’t hired any additional staff to assist with the storage.

The Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have body cameras and hasn’t heard a demand from the citizenry to buy and use them, said Lt. Tom Goerge.

And the department doesn’t expect to obtain any soon because of the cost, he said.

“The initial cost is a huge hindrance, as well as replacement costs,” Goerge said. “I’m told that a body camera’s life is about two years.”

Goerge said he has a number of concerns about body cameras, including the privacy of citizens, the cost of storing video and, perhaps, less cooperation from witnesses and victims when they know they’re being recorded.

And it adds to the workload for officers who must remove some of the footage when it is legally required.

Also, some officers are unconvinced that a body camera shows the full picture of an event.

“It’s not necessarily going to tell you what you think it is going to tell you,” said George Basar, the chief of the Howell Police Department and a past president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

It’s a tool, Basar said, but police officers wear their body cameras on the middle of their chest,  so the picture they record isn’t the whole picture of what they see.

Referring to a recent case in California when police officers muted their body cameras during a shooting, Blaine Koops, the executive director of Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said he sees that type of situation as the major problem.

And Basar said malfunctions are also a problem.

“Technology breaks for a variety of reasons. As soon as you have something happen where a body camera malfunctions, you’ll get accused, so the police officers are immediately put in a position to defend themselves,” he said, adding that there’s still a place for them.

Grand Valley State University police don’t have body cameras and there are no plans to adapt them, said Brandon DeHaan, the director of public safety at the university.

“I continue to ask members of our community, including faculty, staff and students, about body cameras,” DeHaan said. “The answer received from all groups continues to be that they do not see a need, nor do they wish for officers of the Grand Valley State University Police to wear body cameras.”

According to Montcalm County’s Goerge, it’s difficult to say whether the body camera helps build community trust. “Cameras may play a role.”

He  said police departments with community outreach projects and interaction with the community on more than just ‘investigative contacts’ can build trust that way.

“My belief is that trust goes way beyond a small piece of electronic equipment. It is developed over time and is accomplished by law enforcement officials working hard to protect the community, sharing information with the community and keeping them informed,” he said.

Bill would put more service dogs in courtroom

Capital News Service

LANSING — Those who are in need of a support dog in court may soon get the opportunity to request one.

A bill introduced by Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, would permit a witness who is called to testify in court to have a courtroom support dog close by.

This pending legislation is progress for those who have any type of service, therapy or facility dog, service dog, advocates say.

“Especially for those with really bad anxiety, the comfort of being able to have that animal there to be able to comfort them is great,” said Cynthia Smith, owner of Michigan Service Dogs, LLC.

In Michigan, only two dogs are accredited. Both come from the K-9 Companion program, which trains these dogs to comfort those who are testifying or going through a forensic interview in their respective courtrooms.

One of the two dogs, handled by Laurie LaCross, victim-witness coordinator at Leelanau County Prosecutor’s Office, comforts any type of witness while the other dog is used for sexual assault services in Calhoun County.

LaCross’ facility dog, Gunther, has been by her side since May 2015.

“He’s down at your feet for hours and doesn’t move or bark or disrupt anything,” she said. “There’s just a lot of training involved.”

Not all dogs who start the training are able to finish.  “And with the other dogs that are released, there’s a reason they are released. They may be mellow, but they might have other distractions. There has been some work to formalize some type of accredited facility dog to be in the courtrooms,” LaCross said.

LaCross said the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys feel that accredited facility dogs that are professionally trained should be allowed in the courtroom, so she hopes this bill will help improve the use and accessibility of dogs in the courtroom.

Studies have shown that having a dog in stressful situations severely decreases anxiety, Smith said.

“So that would be huge for those who have to testify, especially in tense situations when what you’re testifying isn’t necessarily pleasant,” she said.

For Corey Galesk, owner of Blue Cord Service Dogs in St. Johns, he rarely has any issues taking his dog, which he uses to help his PTSD, in public.

“When I do have problems, I usually educate them on the law, and it’s dropped right then and there,” he said. “There are a few people that are against having a dog out in public. No matter what, you’re always going to get that one person in the grocery store that’s glaring at you.”

Unfortunately for handlers of service dogs, they won’t be able to use their own dog in court, as various agencies will be the only authorized distributors of service dogs in court, and they must receive approval from their participating prosecutor’s office.

The bill is now pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

Bill would allow ownership of brass knuckles, bludgeons

Capital News Service

LANSING – Metal knuckles, sand clubs and bludgeons may soon be legal to sell and own in Michigan.

A bill proposed in the House would legalize several types of weapons that have been banned since the 1930s.

The bill would get rid of a law that Reps. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, and Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township, say is outdated. It would legalize manufacturing, selling or possessing of a blackjack, slungshot, billy, metal knuckles, sand club, sandbag and bludgeon.

Johnson said it is a “gotcha” law that criminalizes those who have done nothing wrong. And Miller said it’s selectively used.

“Even some Michigan police officers no longer enforce this law,” Miller said.

The law still affects some people. In Bay City, a man was sentenced to 120 days in jail for having brass knuckles in his pocket in 2015, according to news reports.

Johnson said it can be “used as a tack-on in courts to give someone who committed a crime a longer sentence. The person should be sentenced for the crime they commited, not for owning an item.”

According to Johnson, legalizing the manufacture, sale and possession of these rare weapons is part of a criminal justice overhaul in which a key element is eliminating laws that penalize individuals for victimless crimes.

“Looking at the bill, some of the items are so old that most people couldn’t tell you exactly what they are,” Johnson said.

For example, a slungshot is defined as a strap or chain attached to a rock or piece of metal used to shift the location of where a fishing line is cast.

According to lead sponsor Miller, the list of items is so dated that what qualifies as some of the weapons is unclear – for example, what would and wouldn’t  be considered a “bludgeon” is hard to tell.

Many people are unaware of the law and own such weapons anyway, Johnson said, adding that assault with such weapons would still be illegal under the bill.

“The conversation that should be had is about gun control. The items in the bill do not do damage in the way that guns do,” Miller said.

With its potential to make more weapons available to the public, some law enforcement officials are wary of the bill.

Capt. Shawn Bride of the Muskegon Police Department said he has mixed feelings about the proposal.

“I am a strong believer of a person’s constitutional right to bear arms and defend themselves. I do have a problem with somebody trying to hurt one of my officers with brass knuckles though,” Bride said.

Bride described the weapons as offensive tools, not defensive.

Legalization might make some collectors happy, he said, but such items shouldn’t be carried around regularly.

“My main concern is about the safety of my officers and the general public,” said Bride.

Police Chief Mark Barnett of the Ludington Police Department worries about public safety and how the weapons might be used.

“I have encountered brass knuckles on the job,” Barnett said. “If the aim of legalization is protection, there are far better ways to go about defending yourself.”  

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

Offenders returning to prison at record low rates, state says

Capital News Service

LANSING – Recidivism rates in Michigan have fallen to an all-time low, and the Department of Corrections is crediting more extensive education and job training programs both in prison and after release.

All demographics of people have become more successful after release and less likely to commit further crimes because of the department’s new offender success model, Chris Gautz, the public information officer at the Department of Corrections, said.  

Recidivism refers to the percentage of offenders who return to prison within three years.

The state’s rate has dropped from 29.8 percent of prisoners who were paroled in 2013 and didn’t return for three years to 28.1 percent of those who had returned to prison after being released in 2014. Michigan’s previous lowest rate was 29 percent recorded for offenders released in 2010, according to a state press release. The highest rate in recent years was about 46 percent in 1998.

Around 2012, the department stepped up its efforts to rehabilitate prisoners, Gautz said. For example, inmates’ education options became more diverse and now include a wider variety of classes, as well as more options in the skilled trades.

“They have a better chance of success because they have some college credits. They have a bachelor’s or an associate degree or a certification in a skilled trade,” he said.

In addition to education, services offered to inmates once they are on parole expanded,  Gautz said. The department can provide certain inmates a place to live for up to three months until they get back on their feet and can assist with job search and placement.

“For a long time, parole and probation could settle into a routine of the person coming to the office and simply being asked if they are living where they are supposed to be and if they have a job. If the answer was yes, it was just onto the next person. It’s not like that anymore,” Gautz said.

Agents now travel to parolees’  homes to see what’s going on. They also go to their workplaces and talk to them as well as their employers, he said.

Not only does that mean parolees don’t have to take time off work to go to a parole office, but the agents get a much better sense of their condition, how they’re adjusting and what their possible needs are, Gautz said.

Jessica Taylor, the executive director of Chance for Life, said those steps are important, but the first step is helping to change the mindset of the prisoners. The Detroit-based nonprofit organization helps prisoners, both incarcerated and on parole, understand that changing their outlook is key for them to have a better future.

Its programs include teaching conflict resolution, leadership training and critical thinking.

“After changing their mindset, every other step toward success begins to work because the people now understand why they were acting a certain way before and how they need to be thinking to make positive change,” Taylor said.

Several higher education institutions are also involved in the education of the incarcerated. Jackson College has been involved in assisting inmates in higher education since the early 1970s. Its Prison Education Initiative serves about 600 students in three state facilities and one federal facility.

According to Bobby Beauchamp, the director of the organization, well over 50 percent of the inmates it works with get on the dean’s list.

Corrections is very supportive of the initiative, and it has done a great job with focusing on lowering reentry into prisons through education, Beauchamp said.

Western Michigan University has also been developing a prison education program with faculty and graduate students from the Philosophy Department, who teach classes for inmates.