National bipartisan group seeks criminal justice bills

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - A national group representing the left and right of the political spectrum is concentrating on Michigan as ripe for criminal justice changes that include releasing parolees earlier and taming law enforcement's seizure of people's assets regardless of whether charges are filed.

The U.S. Justice Action Network comprises seven partner groups such as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and Center for American Progress and conservative FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform. The organization's executive director, Holly Harris, has been traveling to Lansing to lobby lawmakers and others since its formation in the summer and hopes legislation is enacted by year's end.

"All of these groups that ordinarily wouldn't agree with each other on anything have come together in agreement on these justice reform issues," she told The Associated Press in an interview last week in the Capitol. "They all come at it from a different perspective - whether it's a liberty issue, a freedom issue, a cost savings issue, a civil rights issue, the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has on people of color. They all agree the reforms are necessary."

She said the group - which also is targeting Ohio and Pennsylvania before expanding to more states next year - wants to safely reduce the prison population and associated "astronomical" incarceration costs, address over-criminalization and help ex-convicts successfully return to society.

Most immediately in the fall legislative session, a main goal is shifting the parole board's burden so it must have compelling reasons to keep certain inmates locked up beyond their earliest release date. Other bills at the top of the list include raising the evidentiary threshold for police to seize property from suspected criminals, requiring transparency in civil asset forfeiture and construing new criminal laws so offenders must knowingly commit a crime in order to be convicted - unless otherwise indicated by legislators.

Prisoners on average serve about 127 percent of their minimum sentences. Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican who helped halt a "presumptive parole" bill in the GOP-led Legislature in December's lame-duck session, has said most inmates not granted parole at an early date committed "heinous crimes" and pose a threat.

Harris said she has had "very productive" discussions with Schuette, who she described as "very thoughtful" and someone who asks a lot of important questions.

"The entire country has shifted its position on criminal justice," she said, contending that tough-on-crime laws and the war-on-drugs movement of the 1980s and 1990s are in the past. Harris, a lawyer who previously worked in government and GOP politics in Kentucky, said her group and a sister organization, Fix Forfeiture, want to bring law enforcement officials to the table.

The groups' top lobbyist, Russell Coleman, is a former U.S. Justice Department staffer and FBI special agent who was a senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Michigan was chosen as a priority in part, she said, because of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's emphasis on a criminal justice overhaul. In the spring, he called for changes such as better helping crime victims, keeping juvenile offenders out of the courts when appropriate, addressing inconsistent probation violation penalties and preparing inmates for employment and life post-release.

"The vast majority of these individuals who are incarcerated right now are coming out some day," Harris said. "Who are we returning to society? Are we returning a better citizen or a better criminal? Right now I think it's the latter."

Published: Tue, Sep 22, 2015