Here’s how a state proposal and a plan from Joe Biden come together to dramatically reduce reincarceration rates for Michiganders.
MICHIGAN — Even after release, with their sentence served and debt to society paid, formerly incarcerated Michiganders face stark challenges reclaiming their daily lives. Addressing those challenges may be the key to addressing recidivism.
Michigan lawmakers are considering revising and expanding a Clean Slate law, which could automatically set aside nonviolent minor offenses after release, expunging the records for those Michiganders with minor infractions for things like possession of marijuana prior to the state’s legalization in 2018.
“By expanding eligibility and automating significant parts of the expungement process, this package takes significant steps toward fixing Michigan’s broken expungement system and puts Michigan on track to be a national leader on expungement reform,” Safe and Just Michigan Executive Director John Cooper said in a statement. “Clean slate legislation is smart policy that will open up opportunity for thousands of people. Clean slate is good for Michigan’s workforce, good for taxpayers, and good for public safety.”
But the influence of that legislation still has its limits. For those trying to reintegrate into daily life, more transition services are needed.
Experts suggest that the first 72 hours after release is the biggest influence on recidivism, that is the chance that once released a person will become incarcerated again. After release, Americans often have no money, no job, and nowhere to stay. Reluctance on the part of landlords and employers to rent to or hire the released increase the likelihood of homelessness, which in turn increases the likelihood of being arrested again.
That’s not a challenge Michigan can address alone. Some programs reentering Michiganders need to smooth the transition back to daily life are administered at a federal level, and others at state levels. That means any approach to resolving the issue of those critical 72 hours has to come from both federal and state action.
An Evolving View of Criminal Justice Reform
Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have checkered records when it comes to criminal justice reform. But since the summer of 2019, when Biden called for full housing to all returning citizens, the former vice president’s platform of reform has only grown, with Biden calling for full housing to all released Americans in the summer of 2019.
The Washington Post reports that it was finding common ground on criminal justice reform that brought Harris and Biden together. Harris, the Post reports, has undergone great evolution on her views of criminal justice from her time as a prosecutor and in the Senate, and in the primary was starkly critical of the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped pass while in the US Senate and she spent a career enforcing.
It was her criticism of Biden on those issues that prompted his own evolution, reports the Post.
“Not only Joe Biden but the Democratic Party itself has evolved quite significantly over the last decade, and Senator Harris has been a trailblazer on the issue of criminal justice reform,” said Brian Brokaw, an adviser to Harris.
And that evolution has bolstered the changing perspectives among the Biden camp, from prison as punishment to the importance of rehabilitation over the past decade.
“My view is we should turn prison reform — and I’ve been preaching this the last five years — from prison punishment to reform,” Biden said in early September. “So for example, anybody serves their time in prison when they get out, they should be entitled to every single program that exists under the federal government.”
Those services include Pell grants, food assistance, housing assistance, and other pillars supporting America’s social safety net to help make those crucial first 72 hours a safer transition.
Although formerly incarcerated Michiganders have their right to vote restored upon reentry, access to government programs is limited and, without expungement of minor offenses, a marijuana conviction can make it challenging to find housing and employment.
“Why don’t we want them getting a Pell grant and going to school? Why don’t we want them getting a job and being able to get public housing subsidies? Why don’t we want them qualifying for what used to be called food stamps?” Biden asked earlier this month.
Biden argued that the answer is the punitive nature of the criminal justice system. The current form of the criminal justice system is not focused on rehabilitation, and that lack of focus leads to recidivism.
How Strong Economic Prospects Help Prevent Recidivism
Education, housing, employment, and broader economic security lead to safer communities here in Michigan, argues David Guenthner of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The same logic that applies to the bill Michigan is considering applies more broadly to other forms of reintegration for Michiganders who have paid their debt to society.
This is borne out by research RealClearPolitics highlighted in 2015, which showed that an economic support system after release meant a lower rate of recidivism. Other factors, like age and prior record, do play a vital role, the research found Not only that, the 2015study found the speed with which that economic security was found dramatically affected recidivism rates.
““Public safety is enhanced when those who have committed crimes don’t repeat or escalate that behavior,” Guenthner said in Safe and Just’s statement. “By offering ex-offenders in Michigan the potential to find better jobs and move on with their lives, the expungement bills provide a clear incentive for them to model upstanding behavior.”
And for minor offenses like the ones the Michigan legislation would expunge, Biden in September wondered if there were better solutions to how the criminal justice system could handle them. He proposed sending drug-related offenses to rehab instead of jail, for instance. Like Michigan’s expungement and Biden’s other proposals, this too is a tool for reentry.
“[People convicted of drug offenses] have to go to mandatory rehab, but it’s not part of the record when they get out if they finish it. Because the point you made, you get a record and it stays with you. Sorry. You can’t get the job, because you did the following, even if it’s a misdemeanor,” Biden said.