Opinion: Bill Schuette is Wrong on Criminal Justice Reform

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One of the hot topics in politics today is criminal justice reform. While President Trump has commented on a variety of topics, many people were surprised to learn he actually favored reform. But what exactly did he mean by this? As so many politicians before him have done, Trump failed to publicly discuss or disclose how he would reform the system. Why? Perhaps he is afraid of being labeled “soft on crime.”

In times past, the mere accusation of being labeled soft on crime has carried incredible political influence for political opponents. However, people are beginning to recognize that the “tough on crime” moniker has not made society safer over the past 40 years. It is cheap political rhetoric, plain and simple. Recidivism rates hover at unacceptable levels not because we are soft on criminals, but because we fail to take their humanity into account when we make them serve decades in places that are more akin to human warehouses than rehabilitation centers.

Rather than resemble the shining light on a hilltop, a beacon of human transformation for other states to admire, Michigan’s record on criminal justice remains one of the worst in the U.S., a country that contains 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. For example, the Coalition of Justice Voters states, “Prisoners in Michigan serve the longest average sentences in the country, but this has had little impact on crime rates ….”

In addition, 19 percent of Michigan’s budget is allocated to corrections. Despite this, gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette believes we need to become even tougher on crime. Why? Either Schuette is appealing to people’s fears about crime for political gain or he believes his actions are for the greater good.

Please do not misunderstand us: knowing that people who have committed crimes are being held accountable is commendable; convicted persons deserve punishment for what they have done. However, Schuette seems so blinded by his anger about crime that he fails to recognize which policies are for the greater good.

For example, today’s leading criminal justice research indicates that rehabilitation (and not onerous sentences) is key to reducing crime in the US. According to the Rand Corporation’s meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults (spanning 32 years of research), it has been demonstrated that correctional education reduces individual recidivism rates by 43 percent, thereby saving  taxpayers the cost of re-incarceration and fostering public safety by preventing people from committing future crimes.

Yet, our criminal justice system has focused on retributive justice over the past 40 years, which could be one big reason we currently have unacceptable recidivism rates. Continuing these policies while expecting different results would qualify as insanity.

Despite this, Schuette wants to make it more difficult for people convicted of crimes to become productive members of society. For instance, he refused to resentence juvenile lifers despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s clear requirements to do so more than two years ago.

While some people may not have a problem with him breaking the rules to keep people incarcerated longer than legally permissible, this practice should send signal concern for anyone concerned about government intrusion, exploitation of taxpayer resources or the waste of human lives. Schuette’s idea of dealing with criminal defendants is to discard and banish them, to lock people up and throw away the key.

The truth you will not hear from him is that we cannot afford to keep people incarcerated for as long as possible while also rehabilitating them. These two philosophies are diametrically opposed. Rather than creating environments that facilitate rehabilitation, long-term incarceration has been found to be detrimental to people’s mental health. Furthermore, research indicates that people who endure poor living conditions for long periods display symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and become hostile toward other people in general.

Even with our country’s current sentencing schemes (which are harsher than most other places in the world), 95 percent of people incarcerated today will eventually return to society. With which mindset do we want ex-offenders returning to our communities?  As a society, we must decide if we want to focus on seeking revenge against these individuals, or if we want to help them aspire toward becoming productive citizens.

Bill Schuette’s record as attorney general demonstrates that he wants revenge, regardless of cost or what kind of longer term safety issues this policy creates for our communities. We need to ensure that Schuette does not become our governor. Help Michigan’s criminal justice system get back on the right track. Get out this November and let your voice be heard — vote for Gretchen Whitmer as Michigan’s next governor.