Originally published in the Mackinac Center

by David Guenthner and David Safavian

As alluded to in the previous issue of IMPACT, legislators have a tight time window through which to advance policy this year. Anything not on the governor’s desk by Memorial Day will be pushed aside by work on the next state budget, and then election considerations.

Partisan tensions are already heightened this year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered a “go it alone” State of the State speech. That was followed by her directive that the Michigan Transportation Commission issue $3.5 billion in bonds for highway construction and the Michigan Senate’s act to reject a Whitmer nominee for the first time.

The one policy area that seems least likely to be derailed by partisan sniping is criminal justice reform. There is a broad consensus that many aspects of our criminal justice process don’t serve the public well. By pursuing data-backed reforms adopted in other states, we can reduce the risk of repeat criminal behavior, which will increase public safety and reduce the cost of government.

Late last year, the Michigan House overwhelmingly ratified a package of six bills that make it easier for people to receive set-asides on old criminal convictions. We encourage and expect the Michigan Senate to advance these bills sometime in the spring.

Any criminal conviction in a public background check has shown to be a significant deterrent to a person’s employment and housing prospects, even for minor offenses in the distant past. The bills would allow people to petition a judge for set-asides of non-assaultive offenses several years earlier than the law currently allows. The bills would also grant set-asides, automatically, 10 years after the completion of a sentence.

A study on Michigan’s existing set-aside process published in the Harvard Law Review last year showed its benefits. Those who receive a set-aside immediately and substantially increase their likelihood of employment and earned income, while reducing their propensity for future criminal behavior below that of the general adult population. We should want more of those results.

A related issue is that the state sometimes misuses a person’s criminal history to deny an application for an occupational license. Roughly one-fifth of all jobs in Michigan require a license issued by the state, so it is important that any denials based on criminal history be for convictions directly related to the duties of the job rather than nebulous breaches of “good moral character.”

We have supported these bills for several years and won the broad policy argument, but the hang-up has been industry associations fighting to retain their little fiefdoms. “We get the policy goal, but we need to be carved out because we’re different. (Insert protectionist excuse here.)” Nevertheless, the logjam should break, with these bills finally moving this spring.

Finally, the Michigan Legislature will begin the long slog of adopting the recommendations of the Jails and Pre-Trial Incarceration Task Force. Because there is more meat in those findings than can be covered in this space, do a Google search of “David Guenthner Jail Reform” and read the link from The Hill.

Given the way Michigan structures its laws, including the state constitutional mandate that legislation be limited to a single subject, addressing all of the task force’s recommendations could require up to 105 bills. But the ones dealing with overcriminalization and the overuse of county jails to lock up people whose driver’s license has been suspended for nondriving violations should be among the first to advance.

David Guenthner is the senior strategist for state affairs at the Mackinac Center. David Safavian is the general counsel for the American Conservative Union.