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Hell freezes over - GOP and ACLU push prison reform

To call them strange bedfellows is also to state the case that, this time, criminal justice and prison reform in Michigan have a real chance at success.

In July, the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Justice Action Network announced it is bringing its reform campaign to Michigan, along with similar efforts in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It is the latest sign of bipartisan support for reducing the state’s crowded and costly prison population; momentum that supporters of prison reform say they hope will pay dividends in Lansing this fall.

“We will be actively lobbying the legislature and law enforcement,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, of the bipartisan coalition. “This train is moving. It is leaving the station. Are you going to be on it, or left behind?”

Lending backing to the reform network are an odd political couple, the conservative-leaning Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the progressive-leaning ACLU of Michigan, along with key Republican lawmakers. This is the new shape of criminal justice reform, turf that for years was ceded largely to Democratic activists.

Beyond Mackinac and the ACLU, the U.S. Justice Action Network lists a mix of conservative and progressive groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Right on Crime.

RELATED: "43,000 Michigan prisoners: Who should we cut loose first?"

Among its early targets is Michigan's civil asset forfeiture law, which allows police to seize property linked to an alleged crime even if the owner is never charged or convicted. The Republican-led state House has approved a package of bills that would set stricter rules for police when they seize property that they contend is tied to criminal activity, even if no charges are filed.

Those who want to reform the forfeiture law say it creates incentive for local police departments to abuse individual rights, since they can sell or auction seized property to supplement their department budgets. Under the current law, cash or property worth less than $50,000 can be seized without a court hearing.

Fix Forfeiture, a sister organization of the U.S. Justice Network, has pressed for legislation that goes further: that no property be seized without a conviction. Harris and others testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on forfeiture on Wednesday.

With Michigan's state prison population at more than 43,000, Harris said it is high time to ask what taxpayers are getting for their money. She says this as as a figure steeped in GOP politics, as former general counsel and finance chair for the Republican Party of Kentucky and former chief of staff to Republican Kentucky agriculture commissioner James Comer.

“As our prison population has exploded, so has cost to the taxpayers. This incredibly high taxpayer burden has not provided the people of Michigan the public safety return they deserve,” Harris said.

RELATED: “Conservatives seek to lead on prison reform”

Other reform measures have also moved through the House:

  • Probation: House bill 4137 would set up a review process to allow courts to lower the time on probation for some felony offenders, after they have completed one-third of their probation period. The maximum probation term remains at the current five years. The bill would also expand the state’s “Swift and Sure” probation program, an intensive probation regime that has proven to reduce the percentage of probationers who return to prison.
  • Parole: House Bill 4138 mandates that prisoners who pose a low risk to public safety be released on their minimum sentence date, unless there is a compelling reason to deny parole. Known as “presumptive parole,” it is similar to proposal by former state Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, a longtime champion of prison reform efforts, that failed to pass last year.
  • Firearms: House Bill 4419 would give judges more discretion when sentencing people who possessed a gun while committing a crime. The measures would end mandatory two-year sentences for first-time felony firearm offenders, though it would extend the maximum penalty to three years.

In January, Gov. Rick Snyder signed off on the establishment of the Justice Policy Commission, tasked with reviewing state and local sentencing and release policies for felonies and making recommendations to the Legislaturre on possible change.

In May, Snyder added his voice more forcefully to the reform movement, calling for “smart justice,” advocating measures including training prisoners for new jobs, channeling some non-violent offenders to probation and diversionary programs and giving some juvenile offenders options other than prison.

Michael Reitz, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center, also called for “getting rid of unnecessary or duplicative criminal laws” as a start to criminal justice reform.

“This is the right time to be having this conversation,” Reitz said.

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