A long-overdue presidential 'visit' recalls Michigan attorney's efforts


by Tom Kirvan

It was a first time stop for a sitting president – a federal prison.

Unlike some politicians from his home state of Illinois, President Barack Obama made the visit by choice, touring the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on July 16 to focus attention on his call for criminal justice reform.

In particular, the nation’s chief executive claimed that it is high time to change laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on non-violent drug offenders, who are “disproportionately black and Latino,” according to Obama, who said that the U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980 at a cost of some $80 billion annually.

It’s a message that Detroit area attorney Marty Reisig, a former federal prosecutor, has been trumpeting for years.

His cause celebre revolved around the case of Doug Reidt, a cocaine addict caught in a 1984 drug deal gone bad. In Reisig’s view, the arrest of Reidt set off a chain of legal events that was as if a “tiger trap was sprung upon a sick kitten.”

Those words would come to define a 15-year legal mission for Reisig, currently a full time mediator who admittedly “became obsessed” with righting a wrong, with changing a Michigan statute that was fraught with unintended consequences for Reidt and countless others destined to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

It would become a cause for which Reisig, who began his career as an attorney with the State Appellate Defenders Office, was ideally suited. It had all the makings of a sure loser, the kind of case that generally ends up in the legal scrap heap. Few tears, after all, were likely to be shed for a foreign-born drug runner snared in a botched cocaine transaction among a loose-knit group of friends.

But for Reisig, who teaches an advanced mediation course at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, the case “incorporated much of what was wrong” with the sometimes heavy-handed approach to meting out justice in the war on drugs.

“At the time, Michigan’s drug laws were the harshest in the nation,” Reisig said in an interview with The Legal News several years ago. “Mandatory sentences, such as the so-called ‘650 drug lifer law,’ in which a life sentence was imposed on those convicted of possessing or dealing more than 650 grams of a controlled substance, were designed to lock up drug kingpins and to deter others from entering the trade.”

In reality, however, high-level drug dealers often avoided long mandatory sentences by cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for sentence reductions or prosecution under much more lenient federal laws, Reisig contended.

“Minor offenders seldom have information to trade and are often held responsible for the real drug kingpin’s crimes,” said Reisig, who earned his law degree from Wayne State University. “As a result, these laws have filled Michigan’s courts and prisons with low-level couriers and addicts, ballooning the costs of the state’s correctional system.”

So, while in private practice in the mid-‘80s as a criminal defense attorney, Reisig used the Reidt case as a lightning rod for reform.

“He was – he is – a very likeable person,” Reisig said of Reidt, a Canadian who formerly was a hairdresser. “He had several failed business attempts and was down on his luck financially, but he was hardly a drug kingpin. He screwed up admittedly, but he only figured to make a few thousand dollars on the drug deal. He wasn’t going to be netting hundreds of thousands of dollars. Life in prison without the possibility of parole wasn’t a punishment that fit his crime.”

Reisig, a graduate of Oak Park High School and Oakland University, began lobbying, urging legislators to begin the “process of bringing some rationality to current drug offender sentencing.”

He wrote. He pleaded. He testified. He arm-twisted. He did whatever it took to promote changes in the law.

It was a 15-year test of his smarts and stamina.

“All the while, I came to know Doug Reidt as a person, as someone who made mistakes, owned up to them, and didn’t complain about his plight,” Reisig recalled. “It became a case in which the client became my teacher.”

Reisig’s persistence in pressing the case before state legislators finally paid off when the mandatory life sentence provision without the possibility of parole was repealed in the late 1990s, leading to further sentencing reforms in 2002.

Such tireless efforts, along with his work in championing the drug treatment court program in Oakland County, were recognized in 2012 by the Federal Bar Association for the Eastern District of Michigan, which presented Reisig with the Wade H. McCree Jr. Award for the Advancement of Social Justice. The award was named after the former U.S. Court of Appeals judge who served as U.S. Solicitor General during the Carter administration.

Last week, as President Obama peered into a 9-by-10-foot prison cell that can house up to three inmates at a time, the need to enact meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system came into clear view again. One can only hope that there are more attorneys like Marty Reisig prepared to answer the call to action.