Ballot measure aims to allow Michigan prisoners to earn time off jail sentence with good behavior


With a $1.88 billion budget, the Michigan Department of Corrections is the largest agency in the state. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • With a $1.88 billion budget, the Michigan Department of Corrections is the largest agency in the state.

Criminal-justice reform advocates are preparing to collect signatures to launch a ballot initiative that would enable Michigan prisoners to reduce their sentences through good behavior.

The initiative is aimed at repealing Michigan’s 23-year-old Truth in Sentencing law, which requires inmates to serve their entire minimum sentence before being paroled and bars inmates from earning time off their sentences.

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers on Monday approved the petition’s language, allowing advocates to begin collecting signatures.

The group launched a similar campaign last year but was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marvin Cotton Jr. spent 19 years in prison in Michigan for a crime he didn’t commit. Before he was exonerated last year, Cotton saw too many lives languish without a purpose.

“In my entire nearly 20 years, I noticed that the prison population continued to grow and a lot of people weren’t given an opportunity to get out,” Cotton said at a news conference Wednesday. “We live in America where everyone should be given a second chance and an opportunity to redeem themselves.”

He added, “There are many men, if given the opportunity, who can help rebuild their communities. We have to open our hearts to give people a second chance.”

Michigan is one of the most punitive states when it comes to prison sentences. Inmates in state prisons spend an average of 120%-130% of their minimum sentence behind bars before being paroled, said Rev. Dale Milford, an activist and pastor of Hope United Methodist Church.

“Michigan is the worst state in the country for the average time spent in lockup for the same crime,” Milford said. “Not only are we worse than Texas, we are an outlier.”

Supporters of the initiative said mandatory sentences increase recidivism and deny inmates the chance to become productive members of society.

“What you have are no incentives for good behavior and to better yourselves,” said John Koufos, executive director of Taking Action for Good, a nonprofit focused on advancing criminal justice through commutations and second chances. “What happens is, you have people who may or may not be interested in programing. They don’t think it’s going to bring them any advantage.”

By offering inmates a chance to shave time off their sentences, Koufos said, “You have safer streets, you have people getting a second chance, you have people becoming taxpayers and reuniting with their families. They’re earning the dignity of work.”

With a $1.88 billion budget, the Michigan Department of Corrections is the largest agency in the state.

By eliminating mandatory minimums, tax dollars could be spent on more productive resources, supporters said.

“We’re spending $45,000 a year to keep people incarcerated,” said Ken Whittaker, executive director of Michigan United, a coalition of labor, business, social service and civil rights members. “The cost goes up year after year. If we continue to throw bad money at bad money, it’s no wonder why the education system in the state is plummeting.”

Michigan United is leading the petition drive. For the initiative to appear on the 2022 ballot, the group must collect more than 347,000 signatures in a few months.

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