How Michigan’s sentencing reform package is impacting local courts.

May 21, 2021

How Michigan’s sentencing reform package is impacting local courts.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

A bipartisan state legislative sentencing reform package that was signed into law at the beginning of the year is aimed at expanding alternatives to jail and removing hurdles to opportunities after incarceration. 

Many of the bills arose from recommendations from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which was focused on proposing ways to reduce Michigan’s jail population. 

Policy changes include giving officers more discretion to issue tickets instead of arresting offenders; reclassifying many traffic misdemeanors as civil infractions; and ending license suspensions for violations that aren’t related to dangerous driving. For most misdemeanors and some felonies, state law will include a presumption that judges impose a sentence other than jail unless they determine that incarceration is necessary. 

Many of the changes took effect in March.

Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon

Among the most drastic changes is ending driver’s license suspensions for violations unrelated to safe driving — set to take effect Oct. 1. This ends the state’s practice of automatically suspending the licenses of people who fail to appear in court and fail to appear to pay court fines and fees, unless their underlying offense is related to unsafe driving. Also, Michigan will no longer suspend licenses as a penalty for drug convictions. 

OCP recently sat down with Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon and Mason County Prosecutor Lauren Kreinbrink to learn how these new state laws will impact our local courts. 

“We use the defendant’s criminal history and the facts and circumstances surrounding the case itself to come up with a range,” said Kreinbrink. “And depending on that range is the guidelines range that the judge works with and also the statutory maximum. So using that guidelines range, now we have been instructed if the upper end of the guidelines is 18 months or less, the presumption now is that this particular defendant is going to receive no jail and/or probation. They receive what is called an intermediate sanction. And now the legislature has deemed that jail is no longer considered an intermediate sanction.”

“In my 20 years of doing this, jail was the intermediate sanction — it wasn’t prison,” said Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon. “The legislature has determined that too many people are going to jail.

“So now anytime our guidelines are to less than 18, there is a presumption that the judge is supposed to sentence to an intermediate sanction, which is defined as not jail but can include probation.

“The vast majority of our guidelines is 18 months or less — 90 percent of the cases,” said Bizon. “The court can — if it puts

Mason County Prosecutor Lauren Kreinbrink

reasons on the record — depart up from that. Anytime a court departs up from that, it is automatically an appealable issue. We’re probably going to spend more time litigating whether those are reasonable rather than convicting people. Appeals are incredibly involved and time consuming.

“My office believes it will significantly reduce the county jail population,” said Bizon. “Our jail numbers appear to be lower than normal for this time of year.

“COVID is certainly having an effect on that but I believe that these new sentencing guidelines and the new bond rules are affecting it more.”

“One of the things that the legislature did is they created a presumption that anybody who commits an offense that is not a felony and not a serious misdemeanor — and serious misdemeanors do not include drunk driving — there is a presumption that the person gets a ticket and is bonded out and given an arraignment date to show up later. We have concerns about people behaving while on bond.

“This is what the legislature told the courts to do. The prosecutor offices do not set bond amounts, Bizon said. “The court has been directed by legislation to basically presume that people will show up. When a person is out on bond, constitutionally they aren’t guilty, because they haven’t been proven guilty of anything.”

Malicious destruction of property is one of those misdemeanors considered “not serious” as defined by the statute. “So, if somebody is breaking people’s property, they get a ticket or a summons to come into court. We don’t do warrants for them anymore.”

Warrants in both prosecutor’s offices will continue to be issued for drunk driving, they said. 

Bizon said he has instructed the police agencies that he works with that if officers continue to arrest people for non-serious misdemeanors, there is a potential for civil liability. 

“The legislature has spoken through legislation — that’s policy. We should follow that policy except in the instances where we can justify going outside the policy, like drunk driving. We’re still going to continue doing warrants for that because it’s so dangerous.”

Both prosecutors want the public to know that they did not make these rules, but they have to follow them. 

“This is the law. We are an executive branch official — we execute what the legislature gives us,” said Bizon.

“Certainly there is room for debate on whether this is good policy or not. The legislature spoke; the governor signed it; it’s the law. We have to follow it.”

Domestic violence is still considered a serious misdemeanor, and arrests will be made in those cases — “assuming there is probable cause to establish an arrest,” he said.

It will be up to the district court judges to determine appropriate sentences in cases that are considered non-serious misdemeanors. Oceana County does not have the resources for community service sentencing, Bizon said.

There are programs that defendants can be ordered to complete, such as substance abuse, anger management or community mental health programs. The reform package requires that sentences be “narrowly tailored” to the defendant’s needs to reform them, said Bizon.

“I am expecting that most misdemeanor cases are going to be fines. In circuit court, I am expecting more probation sentences, which have historically been light jail sentences.”

Bizon said he does not expect a big upswing in crime. “People are either going to do something or they’re not going to do something. I don’t think there is a lot of thought put into: what are the consequences?”

He does anticipate that the new laws will make it more difficult to resolve criminal cases, so there could be more trials and less plea agreements.

“One big concern I have is the impact on law enforcement,” said Kreinbrink. “They seem frustrated.”

“I am concerned there are going to be less people in law enforcement who are going to be engaged or as engaged and for future generations, less people wanting to go into the field.

“I am concerned about the impact this will have on our ability to enforce the law and hold people accountable,” she said. 

“As the chief law enforcement officers of our counties, we’re bound to follow the law whether we personally agree with it or not,” said Kreinbrink. “There is a wide reform happening in our state with wanting to rehabilitate offenders and make them productive members of society and ensure that sentences and probation terms that we’re enforcing are tailored to fit them, and I think that’s a good thing. But I think an unintended consequence is victims of these crimes who have been traumatized by a criminal act and they’re not seeing their offender held accountable — at least in a way they want to see that happen. In balancing those considerations, it’s hard to say whether it’s ‘just’ or not. I’m concerned about the negative consequences for our communities.”

There are four pillars to the justice system, Bizon explained, (1) punishing the offender; (2) deterring others not to do the same thing; (3) restitution to the victim; (4) rehabilitation of the offender.

“Ninety nine percent of offenders get out of jail or prison — very few die in prison,” said Bizon. “There is a reason for that. If we aren’t helping that person to have something when they come out, we’re setting them up for failure and we’re setting our community up to have more problems.” 

“In moving forward with these new changes, continuing to show the communities and the victims that we are still committed to doing our job as prosecutors is the most important thing,” said Kreinbrink.

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