Safe & Just Michigan - January, 2023

As 2022 draws to a close, we’re taking a moment to reflect on the past year. While few legislative proposals regarding criminal justice reform saw action inside the Michigan State Capitol in 2022, there were important developments in the courts, the voting booth, and around the state. In no particular order, here are our choices for the Top 5 criminal justice reform developments in Michigan over the past year:

Change Comes to Lansing

The election in November brought about a sea change in Lansing. Starting in January, Democrats will hold the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in about 40 years. The state Supreme Court, while officially nonpartisan, is also dominated by justices who are supported by the Democratic party. This is a complete turnaround from just four years ago, when Democrats were shut out of leadership of all three branches of the state’s government.

Advocates of criminal justice reform are anticipating greater opportunities with the changing atmosphere at the Capitol. However, individuals and groups advocating for public education, public health, and several other priorities are doing the same. As a result, we expect there to be many advocates representing several different goals jockeying to get their legislative proposals to the head of the line as the Legislature’s new session begins in January.

Safe & Just Michigan looks forward to deepening existing good relationships with state legislators and cultivating new ones with incoming lawmakers. We already plan to pursue priorities such as bail reform and ending juvenile life without parole in 2023 — though we are ready to take advantage of opportunities wherever they arise.

We will keep you updated on the changing legislative landscape in Lansing as 2023 unfolds.

Michigan Supreme Court Issues
Key Civil Rights Rulings

Earlier this year, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that expanded civil rights, including the extension of crucial protections to people who are incarcerated or facing trial. These include rulings that:

  • Expand the prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juveniles to extend to people who are 18 years old.
  • Require prosecutors to show clear and convincing evidence rebutting the presumption that life without parole is disproportionate. As a result, life without parole results at hearings will be far more difficult.
  • Deemed a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for juveniles to be cruel and unusual punishment under Michigan's (note: not the U.S.) Constitution.
  • Require courts to take a juvenile defendant’s youth into consideration as a mitigating factor during sentencing.
  • Declared discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be discrimination because of sex, making members of the LGBTQ community protected under Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Thousands Seek Help
Clearing Criminal Records

Throughout the year, interest in the Clean Slate laws that expanded access to expungements in 2020 continued to draw interest from people who sought relief from years-old criminal records. Helping people get the most benefit possible from the new laws remains a priority for Safe & Just Michigan.

As we look at our activity at expungement fairs held across the state, we’re happy to find that we’ve reached 6,300 people. These fairs, often held in partnership with organizations like Michigan Liberation and various Legal Aid offices, occurred in 17 counties.

We also field questions about Clean Slate by phone and email. We estimate that at least 1,400 phone calls were fielded or returned from people who had Clean Slate questions — plus additional email follow-ups.

Overall, about 55.7 percent of people who sought help were found to be eligible for relief through Clean Slate.

Advocates and Coders Prepare for
Automatic Expungement

One of the best features of the new Clean Slate law is set to take effect on April 11, 2023, when automatic expungement will be rolled out. It has taken more than two years to get to this point, as there are considerable technical hurdles to overcome in order to make automation possible. Different courts, county jails, the state police, and Michigan Department of Corrections all use different computer systems and enabling them to communicate with each other is integral to making automatic expungement a reality.

Throughout 2022, Code for America worked with Safe & Just Michigan and the state to address these challenges in order for automatic expungement to become a reality.

The effective date for automatic expungement will be marked with press events and a public information push. Keep your eyes open for further details as the date nears.

Farewell to Some of Our Best Friends

Advocates of criminal justice reform lost many close friends in 2022, including Danny Jones and Earl Burton Sr., two giants in our state’s criminal justice reform community.

Since Danny Jones returned home from a juvenile life without parole sentence in 2019, he devoted himself to bringing reform to Michigan. He acted as a leader, a servant, and a tireless advocate for social justice. Many remember him for his infectious smile, his bear hugs, and his unwavering dedication to the cause. Among his key priorities were voting rights for justice-impacted people and ending juvenile life without parole. He was tragically taken from us on Nov. 19.

Earl Burton Sr. was actively Michigan Liberation’s lead organizer for ending cash bail. He also worked on projects such as restoring Good Time credits and voter registration efforts — both inside jails and in the wider community. He passed on Nov. 23.

Safe & Just Michigan also lost two of its former board members this year. Tony Benavides served on the board of CAPPS, the forerunner to SJM. He passed in April at the age of 84. In August, Bill Tregea, a founding board member of CAPPS, also passed at the age of 78.

They will forever be missed by all of us.

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