Safe & Just Michigan - December, 2018

2018 Elections Bring Changes to Michigan

The 2018 election resulted in significant changes to Michigan’s political landscape. Those changes could bring opportunities to advance criminal justice reforms in the years ahead. Here’s an overview of how the elections may impact criminal justice reform:

Ballot Initiatives

Voters solidly approved three statewide ballot initiatives this year, including one that legalizes the recreational use of marijuana and regulates it like alcohol. Under the new law, anyone over the age of 21 could have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, grow up to 12 plants, and store up to 10 ounces of marijuana in locked containers — but it doesn’t expunge records of anyone previously convicted under marijuana laws.

Another ballot measure allows people to register to vote on Election Day, restores straight-ticket voting, and allows all voters to vote by absentee ballot. Those proposing this initiative hope it will increase voter participation.

The last ballot measure makes the process of drawing political boundaries a joint effort of Republican, Democrat and independent officials, instead of the work of just one party. It’s hoped this will lead to more competitive elections and better political representation.

Statewide Races

Democrats swept statewide races, claiming the titles of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state with Gretchen Whitmer, Garlin Gilchrist II, Dana Nessel, and Jocelyn Benson, respectively. They replace an all-Republican slate that led the state since 2011.

Since winning the election, Governor-elect Whitmer has said that she may be willing to expunge marijuana-related convictions for people who were convicted of offenses that would not be crimes under Michigan’s new marijuana law.

Attorney General-elect Nessel outlined several potential criminal justice reforms. They include marijuana expungements like the ones Whitmer discussed, as well as expanding expungement eligibility to crimes under the Motor Vehicle Code. She also favors cash bail reform, an expansion of diversion programs and problem-solving courts such as sobriety and mental health courts, and better job training for people who are incarcerated or under parole supervision. 

State Legislature

Republicans held their majorities in the state House of Representatives and Senate, though Democrats gained seats in both chambers. This means Republicans will keep leadership and decision-making posts in the Legislature and continue to set the agenda for the coming two years.

Neither party is of a single mind when it comes to criminal justice reform. Safe & Just Michigan has found partners to work with on both sides of the aisle.

Safe & Just Michigan Looks to Future with
New Executive Director

Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director Laura Sager is retiring from her position effective Dec. 31 after serving the organization since 2012 and being the executive since 2013. She will be succeeded by Safe & Just Michigan’s current Associate Director of Policy & Research John Cooper, who joined the organization in 2017. Safe & Just Michigan works to advance policies that end Michigan’s overuse of incarceration and promote community safety and healing.

“Leading this organization has been the capstone to my career in the criminal justice movement. I’m proud of Safe & Just Michigan’s vision of a safer, more just Michigan and our outstanding leadership team, which will continue to press for long-overdue reforms on behalf of all Michigan residents,” Sager said. “Safe & Just Michigan has been instrumental in pursuing safe, sensible parole reforms that will further reduce Michigan’s prison population and the state’s corrections budget. In addition, we have spearheaded reforms to increase investment in safer communities.”

Prior to joining the SJM team, Sager was executive director of the Campaign for Justice, from 2007-2011, which worked to reform Michigan’s public defense delivery system. She also served as national executive director, national campaign director, and Michigan director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national nonprofit sentencing reform organization. She led a bipartisan campaign that won sweeping reforms of Michigan’s then harshest-in-the-nation mandatory minimum drug laws. She also is a founder and Board member of the National Network for Justice.

Safe & Just Michigan’s board of directors chose Safe & Just Michigan’s Associate Director of Policy & Research John Cooper, who has been with the organization since April 2017, to succeed Sager. Before joining Safe & Just Michigan, Cooper served as special counsel for criminal justice policy in the office of state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids). He also spent seven years as the litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins LLP, and as law clerk to the Hon. Boyce F. Martin Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Cooper grew up in Grand Rapids and has a bachelor’s degree with honors from Calvin College and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia School of Law.

“The board determined that John Cooper has the right combination of experience, knowledge, skill and expertise about Michigan to take Safe & Just Michigan to the next level,” said Safe & Just Michigan Board President Michael Vizena. “John’s leadership was instrumental to Safe & Just Michigan’s ability to shepherd the objective parole bill through the legislative process and seeing it signed into law. We are confident that under his leadership, the staff of Safe & Just Michigan will work together to realize the ambitious goals outlined in our strategic plan.”

Cooper said that he expects to continue many of his current duties as policy director in his new job and that he sees the executive director role as an opportunity to make an even bigger impact on the well-being of his home state.

“As someone who was born and raised in Michigan, I am deeply committed to helping make our state safer, more prosperous, and more just. I’m grateful for the board’s confidence in me, and I am excited about the opportunity to lead our organization forward toward these goals alongside my colleagues and partner organizations.”

Cooper will become executive director effective January 1, 2019.

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