Drones raise issue: Who controls prison airspace?

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Now that drones fly in the face of state prisons, someawmakers want to restrict the airspace over and near those facilities.

Recently, drones have been spotted flying over state prisons, making officials nervous. Exacerbating their worries is contraband dropped by the drones into a prison.

“We receive reports of drones flying over or nearby multiple times a month, sometimes multiple times a week,” said Chris Gautz, the Department of Corrections public information officer. “It creates a huge strain on the facility. So when people are dropping cell phones, guns or drugs, it’s a huge security concern.”

Although no guns have yet been reported as dropped into prisons, both prison officials and state politicians are worried it could happen. Last summer, a drone dropped razors, drugs and cellphones behind a  prison fence, prompting some lawmakers to introduce bills that would outlaw the craft above or near prisons.

It’s  a safety issue, said Rep. John Chirkun, D-Roseville, a primary sponsor of one of the bills. “I’ve heard from sheriffs from the three biggest counties in the state of Michigan concerned about this, so I decided to pick up the ball and run with it.”

His bill would outlaw the piloting of unmanned aircraft within 1,000 feet of state prisons, municipal police departments and state court buildings.  

The incident that prompted the legislation occurred last August at the Richard A. Handlon correctional facility in Ionia County. Three men were charged with smuggling weapons, drugs and cellphones into the prison.

Gautz said that because of the threat, when a drone is spotted near a prison and inmates are outside, sirens blare and prisoners are moved back to their cells. “We have to conduct a large-scale search of our entire prison grounds.”

A challenge for the state legislation is that regulating where drones can be flown flies into the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates airspace.

“I don’t know where this is going to go,” said Robert Goodwin, a senior geospatial analyst/project manager with Michigan State University. “I understand the spirit of the law, but the FAA stepping in will open a huge can of worms.’”

Drone piloting, whether as a hobby or for commercial purposes, is new airspace for the FAA, said Goodwin, who pilots drones for university research. Because flying drones is new, the FAA is unlikely to support state restrictions on where they can be flown. Often state governments try to regulate where drones can be flown but don’t have authority to do so.

“Typically communities try establishing ordinances that say, ‘Listen, you can’t fly over a park,’ which they have no jurisdiction over,” he said. “Even if they make that statement saying someone can’t, it won’t hold water.”

But another lawmaker, Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, says that because the FAA hasn’t restricted where drones can fly, the state can.

If the federal government decides it doesn’t want to regulate where drones can go, then sstates can,  Barrett said.

As Chirkun tackles drone restrictions, Barrett is sponsoring a bill to allow an agreement between the FAA and police agencies for local authorities to enforce regulations relating to operation of unmanned aircraft systems.

Other solutions besides outlawing drones above state prisons include making it difficult to fly them, Barrett said. But those technqiues are expensive and not perfected, like frequency jammers the military uses to block radio waves.

“I think in the absence of those solutions, we should at least regulate and make it a crime,’ he said. “I’m not the one that favors regulation, but one that likes public safety.”

Goodwin sees problems for both hobbyists and commercial drone pilots if the state’s airspace starts to get regulated.

“From my standpoint, if they are going to choose an area, put a circle around it and say you can’t fly here, that can limit you a lot,” he said. “There’s going to have be exceptions to the rule set in place.”

As soon as states or the FAA regulate where drones can go, more rules will follow, Goodwin said.

“What if prisons want to use drones themselves? Or maybe a farmer wants to do agriculture research on his dairy farm. There’s all sorts of crazy things that are going to happen over the next several years in terms of what will and will not be allowed.”

Debate continues over whether 17 is an adult or a juvenile

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Public policy advocates say it’s common sense to raise the age for a person to be tried in Michigan criminal courts as an adult from 17 to 18 years old.

The reason is, young people in adult prisons are at higher risk for sexual assault, restraint, solitary confinement and suicide, they say.

“We are a super-minority in the nation when it comes to the age of criminal responsibility for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Placing them in juvenile facilities also gives them a better chance to rehabilitate, advocates say.

“In contrast, young people in the juvenile justice system have opportunities for education, rehabilitative programs and interventions that may help them to succeed,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm.

But county officials are unsure who will pay for the hundreds of 17-year-olds and younger in the adult system who would move to juvenile facilities.

Lowering the age would create a lot of changes to the juvenile justice system, and the counties could be unprepared for those changes, said Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties.

Currently, the state and the counties are responsible for the upkeep and care of prisons. Counties pay for juvenile facilities.

Bills passed the  House in 2016 to raise the age from 17-years-old to 18-years-old but the Senate is waiting for a cost study commissioned by the Legislature before moving the bills.

The Association of Counties has been worried about the pending bills in the past for monetary reasons. County funding has been down since the 2008 recession, and the state is underfunding county programs, it says.

Furthermore, the  association says the proposed legislation does not require the state to cover additional local costs.

Costs are expected to go up for counties but the actual amount is unknown and will depend on the results of the cost study that was commissioned by the Legislature, Bosworth said.

The cost study is expected to be released within months. The study will look to see if there are savings for treating 17-year-olds as adults.

Since potential costs are unknown, the impact on counties financially is unknown but rural and more northern counties could feel a larger burden, Bosworth said.

The Human Impact Partners, a national public policy research and advocacy group, studied juvenile facilities, adult facilities and community-based programming in Michigan. To house a youth in a juvenile facility costs nearly $179,000 a year while to house a youth in an adult facility it costs just over $40,000 per year.

The counties are worried they won’t be able to adequately fund the transition of prisoners from the adult system to the juvenile system and afford the higher costs of the juvenile system.

Advocates are adamant that the age for adult prisons needs to be raised. Michigan is one of only five states in which the age to be tried as an adult is not 18..

Kids who commit crimes need rehabilitation at a facility equipped to handle their developmental status and recognizes they are not adults, Guevara-Warren said.

“In other parts of our laws, 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to vote, they’re not legally old enough to drop out of school, they’re not old enough to buy fireworks,” Guevara Warren said.

Other reasons to raise the age stem from the more supportive treatment of young people in juvenile systems, which allows them to stay in touch with families and communities.

“It’s designed to help young people with their education and to provide treatment and rehabilitation,” Feierman said. “When the juvenile justice system is really working well, it is an intervention that helps young people. The criminal justice system just isn’t designed to fulfill those goals.”

The battle over raising the age, however, is not about the policy implications but over how to pay for it.

Feierman and Guevara Warren said states are recognizing the age raise is better policy and better financially in the long run.

“Youth prosecuted as adults earn 40 percent less over their lifetime than youth in the juvenile justice system which translates in a loss of state tax revenue and economic productivity,” Guevara Warren said.

Fantasy sports websites may have to pay for state license

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan could join 16 states in regulating fantasy sports that offer cash prizes.

Bills that have been approved in committee seek to clarify fantasy sports as a dominantly skill-based game exempt from gambling laws. Right now they are unregulated in Michigan — anyone can sponsor a league and anyone can play.

The bills would bar anyone under 18 from playing the games and bar contests from being based on youth sports, high school sports or college sports. They also would  require operators of the games, including FanDuel and DraftKings, to apply for a license to operate in the state.

A license would cost $5,000 and have an annual $1,000 renewal fee.

The attorney general has not labeled fantasy sports gambling.

The bills, put forward by Sens. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, and Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, label fantasy sports as a game of skill, not gambling. They passed the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee 7-0 and were recommended to the Senate floor without amendment.

Hertel testified before the  committee on Oct. 11, saying he felt the games needed regulation to avoid a ruling by the attorney general and to avoid potentially having more than a million residents breaking the law. If the attorney general decides the games are gambling, they would be regulated by the gambling laws.

Players select fake teams of real life athletes and compete against each other. Points are awarded based on the real-life athletes’ statistics collected in the game that day or week. Winners of the leagues often receive monetary prizes.

Skill games are based on strategy and knowledge of the game. Fantasy sports could be considered skill-based because players have to research the athletes, the team they play for and allocate money properly to craft the right team.

Supporters of daily fantasy sports say the games are skill-based as it takes a certain level of knowledge to consistently craft winning teams.

“It is a difficult skill to allocate assets and choose which players have the best chance of success, similar to how a pro sports team general manager does the same thing,” said Marc LaVorgna, a press representative for DraftKings and FanDuel, the two main daily for-profit fantasy sports websites.

LaVorgna also provided real-world sports as an example of skill-based decisions, as real sports executives must make decisions on which players will be beneficial to team goals.

“It’s about making decisions on a consistent basis that give you the best chance at success,” he said.

Gambling-based games have to meet the criteria of prize, consideration and uncertain outcome in Michigan, said David Murley, deputy director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board. Prize is the reward given out to winners. Consideration is buying into the game, such as putting a dollar into a slot machine or buying a lottery ticket.

“What if something is a game of skill? Well, if there’s an uncertain outcome and it meets the other two things, then at least it would seem to fall in the broad definition of gambling,” Murley said.

Supporters of fantasy games argue that it’s a skill because its based on their knowledge of the sport, its players and the strategy of creating teams capable of scoring a lot of points.

The popularity of fantasy games has grown into daily fantasy sports in which players pay into the league that day. They construct teams under a salary cap where each real athlete costs a certain amount of money to be placed on a team.

Cash prizes are awarded to the winner based on the fees paid by the players that day. Two of the most popular websites for daily fantasy are FanDuel and DraftKings.

The Gaming Control Board hasn’t taken a position on whether fantasy sports are gambling or skill based.

But it’s not clear-cut, as elements of both skill and chance are at play.

“Sometimes it’s not easy to draw the line between where the skill ends and the chance begins,” Murley said.

According to Hertel’s testimony, approximately 1.6 million Michigan residents partake in some form of fantasy sports for cash. These bills would mean exemption from gambling laws, clarification over just where the games fall and regulation of the fantasy sports sites.

The bills call for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to conduct licensing.

The Gaming Control Board argues that it’s the best fit to manage the operation, however.

“This is our business,” Murley said. “We’re in this world. We know things about consumer protection, we know things about gaming payouts, we know about licensing these people and some of the issues we’re likely to see. We know about entities that are part of a larger enterprise.”

Murley said the gaming board is familiar with larger companies that own gaming divisions such as Dan Gilbert’s Greektown Casino in Detroit and the Ilitch family’s MotorCity Casino. With this knowledge, it argues it can better serve consumers.

“If we’re going to have this, then really this should go to the gaming control board,” Murley said.

Lawmakers want to shoot down Chinese lanterns

By CARIN TUNNEY

Capital News Service

LANSING — Americans celebrate holidays by sending things up.

But popular Chinese sky lanterns can kill livestock, strangle wildlife and cause fires, experts say.

Sky lanterns are made of paper, cloth and string. They use wires or bamboo for support. So-called fuel cells made of cardboard and wax allow them to float when lit.

They can soar more than a thousand feet and travel for more than a mile, depending on winds.

And that makes them dangerous, said Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights.

Yanez, a former firefighter, has proposed legislation to roll back the state’s fireworks law and prohibit the lanterns. They’re already illegal in 29 states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Continue reading

Bill package aimed at bridging gender wage gap

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — When a Michigan woman asked why she didn’t get promoted over her male counterpart, her employer told her she didn’t need the raise, according to Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, who was told this story by a constituent.

Her less-experienced male colleague had a family to support, the employer said, while the woman employee’s husband made enough money for both of them.

This is a common sentiment among some of the state’s employers, said Mary Pollock, the government relations coordinator for the American Association of University Women of Michigan.

“Still, employers say a married woman doesn’t need to be paid what a married man gets paid,” Pollock said. “But that’s just not true anymore. Both are supporting families, and there are many single-parent households now.” Continue reading

Another legal lap ahead in horse pulling doping dispute?

By BEN MUIR

Capital News Service

LANSING — It has taken five years, four judges and three rounds in a lawsuit to decide a doping scandal between a state horse pulling association and one of its members.

And it’s still not over. A fourth round is possible.

Many thought it was over after a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of a Chippewa County man accused of breaking competition rules.

The case started in 2012 when a horse owned by David Esslin of Goetzville, then a member of the Bear Lake-based Michigan Horse Pulling Association, tested positive for an illegal substance. Esslin was fined and suspended from the association.

Esslin fought the drugging allegations by suing the association, successfully, for thousands of dollars.

The association banned Esslin after the lawsuit. Esslin wanted back in, so he took the group to court, where a Clare County Circuit Court judge ordered his reinstatement. The group appealed the reinstatement but lost that battle as well, according to court documents. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Bill would keep anti-bullying program alive in Michigan

By LAURA BOHANNON

Capital News Service

LANSING — A senator is pushing to renew a 2013 law that allows students to anonymously send tips regarding bullying and crime in their schools to help improve safety.

Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan,  introduced a bill that would eliminate the “sunset” of the original “OK2SAYlaw, which essentially means it will continue as is.

Laws can have a period before their “sunset,” when it is decided whether that law is effective, and Emmons said this act has proven its effectiveness through the number of kids that are using it.

The Student Safety Act, which created a program called OK2SAY, allows students in any school to anonymously report incidents of crime, bullying, intimidation, incidents of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or other safety threats. If a student is concerned for a classmate who may be experiencing any of these things, they can send a message in as well. Continue reading

Midwives must be licensed under new law

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan midwife associations were pleased when Gov. Rick Snyder signed new midwife licensing legislation into law at the beginning of the year.

Midwives are trained to assist women in childbirth. They help with delivery as well as provide prenatal and postpartum care. Michigan has 31 certified professional midwives currently registered with the state, according to the North American Registry of Midwives.

To further protect the safety of mothers, some midwifery advocates lobbied for such a licensing law for nearly six years, according to Stacia Proefrock, president of the Michigan Midwives Association and a certified professional midwife at Trillium Midwifery in Ypsilanti. Continue reading

Assisted suicide bill introduced — again

By CHAO YAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Cochran recalls, a Michigan resident approached him during a coffee hour to tell him her family was moving to Oregon.

The woman’s father suffers from cancer, and when the time is right, he wants to be able to choose to die painlessly using lethal drugs with the aid of a doctor, Cochran said.

That’s a right the man will have in Oregon that he doesn’t have in Michigan.

“Her story is tragic,” said Cochran, a Mason Democrat. “It’s a topic we need to have discussion on, and it has been around for a long time.” Continue reading