Happy Anniversary, Michigan Reforms: Ten Years After Major Sentencing Reform Victory, Michigan Residents Safer

Post Date: March 1, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — FAMM President Julie Stewart today marked the 10th anniversary of Michigan’s decision to throw out the state’s drug mandatory minimum sentencing laws by noting that Michigan residents are safer now and are spending less to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders.

“Michigan’s experience is a powerful lesson for other states considering sentencing reform. Twenty years after adopting draconian mandatory minimum drug sentences Michigan leaders recognized that the sentences were the wrong solution and began the process of reforming those laws. On March 1, 2003, the last group of these reforms took effect, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Stewart. “Crime has dropped, tax dollars were saved, and nonviolent offenders have had a chance to put their lives back together.”

The first sentencing domino to fall in Michigan was the so-called “650 Lifer Law”, passed in 1978.” This law mandated life in prison without parole for offenders convicted of possessing or delivering 650 grams of heroin or cocaine. Harsh mandatory sentences were also established for lesser quantities of drugs.  During the height of the drug war, in 1987, the Michigan legislature adopted another type of mandatory sentencing law – consecutive sentences.  Sentences for drug offenses, unlike most other serious crimes, had to be served consecutively to any term of imprisonment for another felony.

In 1996, FAMM spearheaded a broad, bipartisan coalition of law enforcement officials, including prosecutors, civil rights organizations, and others in support of fixing the “650 Lifer Law.” Two years later, Republican Governor John Engler signed modifications of the law that eliminated life without parole and provided parole eligibility to the over 200 people serving sentences under the “650 Lifer” law.

In 2002, FAMM led the charge for even bolder sentencing reform. The results were astonishing. In December 2003, Governor Engler signed into law a three-bill package that gave 1,200 prisoners serving long mandatory sentences earlier parole eligibility, repealed mandatory minimums for almost all drug offenses, abolished lifetime probation, and created sentencing guidelines for drug offenses that more closely fit the punishment to the crime and the individual defendant. The laws took effect on March 1, 2003 and were expected to save $41 million in the first year.

Michigan sentencing reforms succeeded because even original proponents found it impossible to claim the mandatory minimum laws were working as they expected. Designed to target drug kingpins, thousands of low-level drug users were sent to prison for decades.  The cost of keeping those low-level offenders in prison was enormous.  In 1976, Michigan spent $63 million on corrections. By 2002, the budget had swelled to $1.76 billion.

By the mid-1990s, both the former Republican governor, William Milliken, who signed into law the strict mandatory minimums, and the state association of prosecuting attorneys, supported the reform of Michigan’s 650 lifer drug law. Former Governor Milliken said:

“I have since come to realize that the provisions of this law have led to terrible injustices and that signing it in the first instance was a mistake – an overly punishing and cruel response which gave no discretion whatever to a sentencing judge, even for extenuating circumstances.”

David Morse, then president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM) said of the movement to repeal the drug mandatory minimums they once supported:

“The time had come to make the change. The idea of stiff severe penalties for drug kingpins was a problem because we weren’t getting those kingpins. We were getting people who were carrying on behalf of kingpins.”

Since the sentencing reforms of 1998 and 2003, Michigan’s crime rate has dropped an astonishing 35 percent, proving that shorter sentences for low-level offenders not only makes fiscal sense but has not jeopardized public safety. 

Stewart said that FAMM plans to release a report in the next couple months that will provide a more comprehensive look at the Michigan sentencing reform success and shares lessons for other states considering reform.

“The Michigan experience demonstrates that mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not keep the public safe. They are like legislative bullies: they act really tough but they only pick on the little guys. More states should follow Michigan’s lead, recognize that mandatory minimums don’t work, and repeal them now,” concluded Stewart.

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