Legislators split on added death threat penalties

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Capital News Service
LANSING – A bill aimed at giving lawmakers additional protection drew high criticism from some legislators.
Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, proposed the bill, saying there should be specific laws to protect lawmakers.
“When elected officials receive death threats, it affects them, their families, their work and their voting process,” he said.
According to Booher, there are laws against intimidation on the federal level and state lawmakers should be protected under the same type of rules.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, agreed, saying,
“It’s unacceptable just to throw around death threats without any responsibility.”
Last year, both Booher and Casperson received several death threats via phone and mail. Police tracked the suspects and interviewed them but nothing else was done, they said.
According to Shanon Banner, public affairs director for the State Police, laws already protect all citizens.
“Currently a person that threatens lawmaker, or any other person, could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable up by up to six months in jail,” she said.
“If the behavior resulted in continued course conduct they could be charged with stalking,” she said, which can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on he circumstances.
As written, the bill would make death threats a felony and cover state legislators, judges, and department heads.
Local officials wouldn’t be covered.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, said no official should be threatened but found it strange that the bill highlights a certain class.
“I don’t think this bill is necessary. It is becoming a little redundant. It is strange to me that we are trying to separate people,” Schmidt said.
“A death threat is a death threat, no matter if it is an elected official or private citizen. We have a law that protects everyone, and lawmakers also fall under this category.”
A number of state officials who received death threats agreed that the law should apply to everyone.
Last year, Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, was the subject of murder-for- hire plot.
A prisoner hired a soon-to-be released inmate to kidnap and possibly murder her. However, police thwarted the plan.
Byrum said she doesn’t understand why the proposed law should apply only to special class.
“It is a horrible experience for any person, any family to go through.
We need to enhance protection laws against death threats. I will support the proposed bill only if it will cover every citizen in the state. There should not be any distinction made between people,” she said.
Rep. Frank Foster, R-Pellston, favors the bill but said the content should be revised.
He has received minor threats in the form of critical comments.
“We want to make sure that those people who throw death threats know that it is illegal. But we want to protect all citizens, and I agree lawmakers should be treated like everyone else,” he said.
However, Foster emphasized that the situation for lawmakers in Northern Michigan is different compared to other parts of the state.
“We respect each other, we respect that it is a political job and at the end of the day, it is a job that protects their workplace,” Foster said.
Rep. Shanelle Jackson, D-Detroit, said that protection of local officials and state lawmakers is a necessity.
“I have been at a meeting at Detroit City Council that was very controversial, and people were screaming at me. I could handle it, but the City Council members, who unfortunately deal with this situation quite often, were concerned and they escorted me with security through the back door,” Jackson said.
She said she has received numerous threatening comments and letters by phone and mail.
“Nobody thinks anything is necessary until something happens to them, and that is unfortunate. We are in a very contentious period, both in the state of Michigan and nationally because of our economy,” Jackson said.
“People are emotional. So, I support the bill because protection for lawmakers and public officials is highly important,” she said.
Meanwhile, Robert McCann, communication director for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the discussion is a waste of time.
“Instead we should focus on state economic development and adding more jobs,” McCann said.
Carol Wood, a Lansing City Council member, said that if death threats become a felony, there won’t be any space left in Michigan jails.
“People have emotional sparks. If you change a misdemeanor to a felony, it means these people can end up in jail,” Wood said.
“We have a limited space in our jails, and because of funding cuts we continue to close them. At this point we won’t have a place to put the real criminals,” said Wood.
Wood’s mother was murdered in 2009.
“The lawmakers really need to think: Do we put in jail someone who is really a threat to a society, or fill them up with someone who is just mad?” said Wood.
The bill’s sponsors are Sens’ Hoon–Young Hopgood, D-Taylor; Howard Walker,
R–Traverse City; Rick Jones, R–Grand Ledge; James Marleau, R–Lake Orion; Goeff Hansen, R–Hart.
It is pending in the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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