The legislation would allow eligible inmates to knock off up to 20 percent of their minimum prison sentences by completing educational or vocational programs. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Some Democrats wanted to allow prisoners who earn degrees early release
  • But blowback from members of their own party has put the plan on ice
  • The plan is also dogged by legal questions over how many members of Legislature must OK plan

LANSING — A plan by some Democrats to allow for the early release of prisoners is on hold due to inner-party opposition and legal questions.

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

The legislation, which would allow eligible inmates to knock off up to 20 percent of their minimum prison sentences by completing educational or vocational programs, was initially scheduled for a Tuesday joint hearing of the House Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee, but was removed from the agenda. 

A scheduled media conference on the legislation also was indefinitely postponed. 

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Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, said some House Democrats had concerns about the proposal, noting there’s “no specific timeline” to bring it to the floor. 

Rep. Tyrone Carter, a Detroit Democrat and lead sponsor on the bill package, told Bridge Michigan, said he’s undeterred, adding the issue “is not going to go away.” 

“We have an opportunity to change or reimagine how we look at public safety, criminal justice systems, and how we look at outcomes,” he said.

The decision to table public discussion for now comes as Republican lawmakers — who contend productivity credits and a separate bill to let prison inmates petition for a lighter sentencing after serving a decade could re-traumatize victims and overburden courts — seek further counsel on whether it would take three-fourths of the Legislature to get it signed into law. 

At least 35 states and the federal government have some form of “good time” credits for prisoners or other earned time programs like productivity credits, according to the Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit supporting justice reform and prison programs. 

1978 ballot initiative ended Michigan’s previous credit system for good behavior for most inmates, and the state’s Truth In Sentencing law signed in 1998 by then-Gov. John Engler went further, requiring all incarcerated people to serve their mandatory minimum sentences before becoming eligible for parole. 

In a review of Cater’s legislation, the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency determined the package would effectively reverse the 1978 initiative and therefore require three-fourths approval from lawmakers, a tough task for Democrats who have a two-vote majority in both chambers. 

Rep. Graham Filler, R-St. Johns, this week sent a letter to Nessel requesting her to weigh in, telling Bridge Michigan that he’d like a clear answer on that before the House moves further. 

“To me, it’s as clear as day…it’s a voter-initiated law that needs three-fourths of the body to vote yes on it for it to pass,” he said.

Filler said he’s concerned that the current version of the legislation does not have exceptions for victim-centered crimes like domestic violence and assault, who currently know the perpetrator of the crime against them has to serve at least the minimum sentence served them by a judge.

Nessel has also expressed opposition to amending the Truth in Sentencing law, arguing in a 2021 Detroit News opinion column that it would not “move the needle of criminal justice reform in any meaningful or productive way” and would leave crime victims vulnerable if the perpetrator was released earlier than anticipated. 

Nessel spokesperson Danny Wimmer confirmed the attorney general is reviewing the request for an opinion, noting that Nessel’s thoughts on the merits of the policy itself won’t factor into the legal review. 

Carter said he’s open to changes that limit the types of prisoners who would be eligible for the credits, but argued that offering credits for improving education would help prepare people who have been incarcerated for significant periods of time. 

“If we don’t give them soft skills to at least get employment, I think we’re failing them,” he said. 

Last year, Michigan’s prison population fell about 4.3 percent to 32,000 and cost the state about $2 billion. 

Separately, organizers of a citizen-led effort to institute a “good time” credit system allowing inmates to reduce sentences through good behavior are collecting signatures for a possible statewide ballot petition.

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