'Day of Empathy' unites advocates, lawmakers in effort to create criminal justice reform

LANSING — The March 2 Day of Empathy brought together Michigan legislators, criminal justice reform advocates and people directly impacted by police, court and prison systems to push for changes that will create a better criminal justice system.  The national event, led by Dream Corps JUSTICE, was sponsored in Michigan by Safe & Just Michigan.

Events included panel discussions on bail reform, COVID-19 in Michigan prisons, the challenge of long and indeterminate sentences and civic oversight for pregnant women in prison.

“Last year was a historic year for the movement to reform Michigan's criminal justice system,” said Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper. “And while advocates are rightly celebrating reforms that will help hundreds of thousands of Michiganders access new opportunities and help many more avoid involvement with the justice system to begin with, we also recognize that there is much more work to be done, and we are eager to build on our recent success.”

The first panel focused on injustices inherent in the cash bail system and included Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit; Asia Johnson, communications associate of The Bail Project; The Bail Project client Sarah, still attending high school when she was arrested; and Phil Skaggs, legislative director for state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids). In its report last year, the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration recommended a presumption that everyone arrested should be released on their own recognizance pretrial unless they meet certain criteria. The panel was moderated by Safe & Just Michigan Policy Analyst Josh Hoe.

“For a lot of our conservative friends, what motivates them is a sense of faith and values that are based in redemption. There is something really powerful in saying we are not going to perpetually punish someone for a mistake, but a bail system that holds someone for lack of money doesn’t allow for that,” said Savit. “Bail is next up on the list, and I think we can get allies from our more conservative friends by speaking their language.”
The second panel looked at life in prison during the pandemic, and at efforts to make the state properly protect people in state prisons. This panel featured state Rep. Tenisha Yancey, Detroit Free Press reporter Angie Jackson and Lorenzo Garrett, whose sentence was recently commuted and who lived through the pandemic in prison. Michigan has suffered one of the largest prison-based COVID-19 outbreaks. This panel was also moderated by Hoe.

“We have to make sure our most vulnerable populations are protected, and that includes the population within the Michigan Department of Corrections,” Rep. Yancey said. “They don’t have the ability to do what’s necessary to socially distance because of where they are.” She added that protecting people who are incarcerated includes making them a priority for vaccination.

The third panel centered on the challenge of long and indeterminate sentences. Much of criminal justice reform activity has narrowed on drug use convictions and nonviolent offenses, leaving behind people who are serving sentences of 20 years or longer. Empirical research shows this population is at a lower risk of recidivating, posing a lower risk to public safety if they are allowed to go home. Panelists state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), Justice Policy Institute Director of Research and Policy Ryan King and Safe & Just Michigan Research Specialist Dr. Anne Mahar discussed expanding criminal justice reform to offenses that bear long sentences, and how to change public perceptions of the people who are or have been incarcerated on these sentences. Moderator Danny Jones, special project coordinator for the Michigan Collaborative for Ending Mass Incarceration, was formerly a juvenile lifer who went home because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that juvenile lifers should have a chance for resentencing.

“Sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional, but we still have a number of people sentenced that way who are still waiting for their resentencing. That's an embarrassment to our state,” Sen. Irwin said.

The senator plans to introduce bills to speed up reviews of their sentencing, and to re-introduce a bill to repeal Michigan’s strict “Truth in Sentencing” law that requires people to serve 100 percent of a sentence before becoming eligible for release.

Michigan has one of the strictest Truth in Sentencing laws in the nation. “We need to fully repeal the Truth in Sentencing law passed at the height of the ‘Tough On Crime’ movement in the '90s. That impulse is wrong, and the data shows that,” Sen. Irwin said.

The final panel discussed civic oversight to protect the dignity of incarcerated pregnant women. Many people have heard about shackling of women during childbirth, but there are many other challenges facing pregnancy and the post-partum period in prison, including breast feeding and milk banking, visitation and custody issues.

Panelist Siwatu-Salama Ra lived through many of these experiences herself when incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. She was joined on the panel by Natalie Holbrook, director of the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program, and state Sen. Erica Geiss (D-Taylor), who has introduced legislation to guarantee oversight to protect pregnant women in prison.

“Our sentencing system is just insensitive. It's overly punitive. It's beyond frustrating. It's heartbreaking,” said Sen. Geiss, who introduced legislation in the previous term to address many of the issues faced by pregnant people in prison. She plans to re-introduce those bills, including one to create a civic oversight panel. “The oversight commission is needed. Infants of people who are pregnant and have delivered in prison need to be safe and have access to breast milk and be nurtured. It's about the community.”

Recordings are available on the Safe & Just Michigan Facebook page and YouTube channel.




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