Michigan group eyes ballot measure to bring back prisoner ‘good time’ credits
A citizen-led effort to overhaul Michigan’s prison sentencing rules and allow inmates to reduce sentences through good behavior could begin collecting signatures as early as August.
On Monday, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers gave the go-ahead for the nonprofit Michigan Justice Advocacy to move forward with a petition to institute a “good time” credit system for prisoners.
The measure would subtract 30 days from a prisoner’s sentence for every 30 days they don’t commit serious misconduct like fighting or keeping contraband. In theory, inmates with perfect records could slice their minimum sentences in half, although parole boards would retain discretion.
The only inmates who wouldn’t qualify would be those serving life sentences, Jack Wagner, Michigan Justice Advocacy’s president, told Bridge Michigan. The changes would also apply retroactively, meaning some prisoners could become parole-eligible upon enactment.
Wagner said the goal of the initiative is to reduce issues with mass incarceration while offering inmates incentives to reform. Last year, Michigan’s prison population fell about 4.3 percent to 32,000, costing the state about $2 billion.
“A credit system like this would be a way of recognizing and incentivizing positive, rehabilitated individuals,” Wagner said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let these people go now.’ What we’re saying is, ‘Let’s get these people in front of the parole board sooner.’”
At least 35 states and the federal government have some form of “good time” credits or other earned time programs, according to the Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit supporting justice reform and prison programs. Other states have a productivity credit option, allowing prisoners to knock time off their sentences by earning a degree, GED or other educational programs.
If enacted, Michigan Justice Advocacy’s proposal would depart from past precedent in Michigan.
A 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.
Legislative efforts to allow for earlier releases have gotten mixed reviews this term.
A plan by Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, to offer a productivity credit option for some inmates was supported by some advocacy groups, including the American Conservative Union and Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.
The legislation was condemned by Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, and several prominent Republicans who contended 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.
To get on the ballot in November 2024, any citizen-led legislative initiative must collect at least 356,958 signatures — 8 percent of the statewide total of votes cast for governor — in 180 days. Any proposed constitutional amendments would need at least 446,198 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the statewide gubernatorial vote count, to qualify.
Michigan law allows lawmakers to adopt initiatives before they head to the ballot if they receive the requisite number of signatures.
Wagner said the group’s target for formally launching the initiative and beginning the signature gathering process is Aug. 1. Michigan Justice Advocacy is also continuing to push for a legislative solution in a “two-pronged approach” to get the reforms through.
A separate initiative — an effort to subject Michigan lawmakers and the governor to public records requests backed by conservative activist John Clore — was also given the go-ahead to move forward by canvassers Monday.
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