‘Second Look’ legislation can correct injustices in Michigan

Carol Siemon

Over my 40-year legal career — with 20 of those years spent on the prosecution side — I’ve learned a lot about the role of extreme punishments in Michigan’s legal system.

I firmly believe that the primary function of our criminal legal system is to ensure accountability and public safety. An overarching consideration and ethical requirement for prosecutors is making an effort to achieve justice, and that means justice for everyone: the community, the victim, the victim’s family and friends, the accused, and the people in the accused’s life.

That’s why I’m proud to support Michigan’s Second Look Sentencing Act. This legislation would allow incarcerated people to petition their judge for a reduction of their sentence after serving at least 10 years if they are found to no longer pose a risk to the community.

Some have the mistaken idea that the longer someone is incarcerated, the “more” justice there is. Far too often, our criminal legal system conflates concepts of public safety and accountability with incarceration.

Extreme, lengthy prison sentences, particularly in such large numbers, produce diminishing returns on public safety.

Nevertheless, Michigan continues to use long-term incarceration and punishment in the promise of more community safety.

I believe that there are some individuals who will never be able to be safely released into the community. When I reviewed individuals eligible for parole as an elected prosecutor, about 38% of the time, I wrote letters opposing parole due to what I believed to be their continued danger to the victim or society, or due to their incomplete rehabilitation.

Instead, research and the experiences in other states and countries with less punitive systems shows that extreme sentences disproportionately impact the most marginalized individuals in our society. That includes persons of color, especially Black Americans. In Michigan, 68% of the people serving life and long-term sentences of 50 years or more are African American. These unnecessarily long sentences tear apart families and cause ripple effects of trauma that make it more likely that the children of incarcerated persons will become involved with the criminal legal system.

Our culture in the United States is uniquely punitive.

Other countries find that they can safely allow incarcerated persons to re-enter society after 15 years or less by utilizing exceptionally well-trained corrections staff, focusing on what is needed for rehabilitation, and keeping incarcerated individuals connected with their families and communities as much as possible.

Of course, even those countries do have provisions for keeping incarcerated those few individuals who continue to pose a substantial risk of causing harm or committing new crimes.

Unfortunately, because we have created a culture that promotes the idea that justice is the same thing as long prison sentences, that is sometimes what victims and their loved ones expect.

For decades, the two most frequent comments I heard from victims were: “I want to know why they chose me or my child to victimize,” and “I want to help make sure they don’t do it to someone else.”

Often, “not doing it to someone else” means they want the person who caused the harm to get needed help, including therapy, support for their families, and meaningful opportunities to heal and truly be rehabilitated.

Lost in the punishment paradigm are the very important voices of victims who truly want a system that rehabilitates and provides a second chance. Lost is the success that other jurisdictions have with shorter sentences and increased options for review and possible release. Lost are the voices of those who want us to invest some of the huge expenses associated with long sentences to instead provide meaningful healing resources for victims, their families, and for the defendants’ families too.

Michigan’s criminal legal system has too narrowly interpreted what “justice” actually means for the entire society. A more humane, effective system would provide a wide variety of potential options that can be more effective in actually addressing current harm and preventing future harm.

The Second Look Sxentencing Act would be a significant step in the right direction, and I urge Michigan legislators to pass this important legislation.


Carol Siemon is the former Ingham County Prosecutor.

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