April, 2021

Executive Order Establishes
Forensic Science Task Force,
Including SADO Director Jonathon Sacks

Governor Whitmer signed Executive Order (“EO”) 2021-4 earlier this month establishing an advisory body task force on forensic science. The Task Force will review the state of forensic science in Michigan, advise the Governor and the Director of the Michigan Department of State Police (“MSP”), and submit its findings and recommendations by December 31, 2021.

The EO noted that “[a]t the core of the American criminal justice system are the basic principles that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty and that every person accused of a crime is entitled to a fair trial … the misapplication of forensic science is the second most common contributing factor in wrongful convictions in the United States … it is essential that attorneys understand how to provide effective counsel when deploying or challenging forensic science to help make their case.”

"Forensic science" is defined in the EO as “the field of study of medical, chemical, toxicological, ballistic, or other expert examinations or tests performed on physical evidence, including DNA evidence, for the purpose of determining the connection of the evidence to a criminal action.”

The members of the Task Force include SADO Director, Jonathon Saks; the MSP director; the director of the MSP Forensic Science Division; one “public defender or criminal defense attorney”; one prosecuting attorney; one board certified forensic pathologist; one forensic science practitioner from a county provider; two experienced forensic science practitioners; two individuals from either the private sector or universities who have doctoral degrees and who are published in a forensic peer-reviewed journal; and one individual from either the private sector or a university who has been published in the area of cognitive bias. Additionally, the Attorney General, or a designee, may participate, as may the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or her designee, from the Supreme Court or from the Court of Appeals, and a circuit judge, designated by the Chief Justice, may participate. The Senate and House of Representatives may each designate individuals, one each from the majority and the minority, to participate as non-voting ex officio members.

“All departments, agencies, committees, commissioners, and officers of this state must give to the Task Force any necessary assistance required by the Task Force in the performance of the duties.”

Sources: Executive Order 2021-4 Task Force on Forensic Science, April 2, 2021:

Study on Life Sentences:
Parolable, Non-Parolable, and Virtual

A recent study by Ashley Nellis, Ph. D., focused on the increasing imposition of life sentences – parolable, non-parolable (“LWOP”), and virtual (meaning a minimum sentence of at least 50 years) – in America. The report notes that sentences of incarceration have greatly increased over the years in America; for example, in the early 1970s there were fewer than 200,000 people imprisoned in the United States. Nationally, there are now over 1.4 million prisoners, over 203,000 of whom are serving life sentences (about 1 in 7 of the total prisoner population). Prisoners over the age of 55 account for about 30% (61,417) of the lifers, and more than two-thirds of the prisoners are people of color. One in five Black males in prison is serving a life sentence, 16% of Latinx prisoners are serving a life sentence, and one of every fifteen women in prison are serving a life sentence. The report noted that the higher rates of Blacks and Hispanics sentenced to prison was due, in part, to higher levels of violent crime, but also due to racially disparate impacts stemming from tough-on-crime polices from the 1980s and 1990s. In Michigan, of the 5,657 prisoners serving a life sentence, the report found that two-thirds (66%) are Blacks, one-third (33%) are Whites, and 0% are Latinx. 39% are prisoners over the age of 55. In contrast to other demographics, the percentage of juveniles sentenced to LWOP sentences has declined in recent years; for example, from a peak in 2016, the rate is down 45%.

Also, despite data showing an overall decline in violent crime over the years, the “increase in life imprisonment and the growing extremity of our criminal legal systems was largely driven by policies enacted in response to public fears about crime, often rooted in sensationalized media stories rather than the actual prevalence of violent crime.” Politicians are responsive to those fears, even where “distorted by media portrayals.” As a result, some of the policies and laws enacted were truth-in-sentencing, increased habitual offender enhancements, and mandatory minimum sentences.

The conviction offense bears on the life sentences imposed: for example, 57% of lifers are serving time for murder, with 72% of those serving for first-degree murder; 19% are serving time for sex-related offenses; 8% are serving time for armed robbery; 3% for kidnapping; and less than 2% for drug offenses.

Dr. Nellis’s recommendations include abolishing LWOP sentences and limiting – with certain exceptions – all life sentences to twenty years, with the possibility of civil confinement after that time if found necessary by a court. Dr. Nellis noted that the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 prohibited imposition of life-without-parole sentences in the member nations. Eighty-three percent (83%) of the world’s population of people serving LWOP sentences are in the United States, and all states, excluding Alaska, provide for LWOP sentences. Michigan is one of the top five states for LWOP sentences. Public investments are better spent on supporting youth, providing affordable housing, and ensuring better access to medical and mental health care, Dr. Nellis said, than on lifelong imprisonment of offenders. Also, the elimination of LWOP sentences would “recalibrate all sentences,” because “public perceptions of incarceration minimize the negative impact of a 5- or 10-year sentence on and individual when compared to the extremes of a life sentence.”

Dr. Nellis also suggested that opportunities for release should be expanded – with a focus more on preparing the inmate for release – and the parole system should be independent from the politics of the executive branch. Professional parole boards should be established and comprised of individuals with expertise in social work, psychology, law, and corrections. States should also adopt ‘Second Look” policies, which would allow parties to re-visit the appropriateness of a sentence after 10 or 15 years.

Sources: Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment,” sentencingprojecyt.org, February 17, 2021:
PDF: https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/No-End-in-Sight-Americas-Enduring-Reliance-on-Life-Imprisonment.pdf

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor