October 12, 2023
By Natalie Holbrook-Combs and Maya Menlo
While one of us works with a religious organization and the other is a public defender, we have both become intimately familiar with the system of criminal punishment in Michigan. We each spend much of our time working with people serving long prison sentences – people like Kennedy Matthews.
Kennedy has served 55 years in prison for a murder related to street violence. And he will die in prison, even though he is rehabilitated: he is a peacemaker, guide, and mentor to younger men in prison. He helps his mentees work on themselves and avoid violence and other misconduct. He has developed training on accountability, empathy, and building reentry plans.
Locking up someone like Kennedy for more than half a century doesn’t create healing opportunities for loved ones of the person killed. And research shows that perpetual punishment doesn’t reduce violence in our communities.
edy to die in prison doesn’t serve the public, either. Taxpayer dollars fund expensive medical care for an elderly man who has lived since age 20 in one of the most unhealthy environments in the nation – an American prison. Imprisoning people who caused harm 20, 30, or even 50 years ago is vengeful and wasteful.
Michigan has some of the country’s strictest sentencing laws. Nearly half of the individuals in our state’s prisons are serving minimum sentences of 15 years or longer, and 66% are serving sentences of at least 10 years.
Many incarcerated people in Michigan have already
served decades in prison and used that time to atone for their actions, better themselves, and mentor others. At least 17% of Michigan’s incarcerated are 55 years old or older.
Research shows that people age out of crime and that incarcerated people serving the longest sentences for serious past harms are the least likely to cause harm in our communities again. In fact, many returning citizens spend their time making our communities better and safer.
There are people incarcerated in Michigan who are rehabilitated and are no longer a threat to the public. But there is presently no way for a judge to modify their sentences.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a better path forward for Michigan.
The solution begins with passing the Second Look Sentencing Act. This legislation would allow judges to reconsider sentences for people who have served at least a decade in prison and have demonstrated their rehabilitation.
The key word is “reconsider.” This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The process involves a review by a judge, who would carefully consider input from the victim, the seriousness of the original offense, the incarcerated person’s history and behavior, and any risks or benefits to society.
If a judge chooses to resentence a person under Second Look, that individual will still go through the regular parole review process. The proposed Second Look legislation intentionally includes layers of review before a person may be released.
Second Look is especially important given Michigan’s past failure to provide adequate legal representation to indigent people. It was only nine years ago that the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission was created to ensure people who cannot afford an attorney receive quality legal representation.
Prior to 2014, Michigan’s indigent defense system was wholly inadequate. Appointed attorneys met with clients just minutes before going before the judge; were forced to meet with clients in hallways and bathroom stalls where there was no privacy; and had caseloads so high it was impossible to adequately prepare a case for informed plea negotiations or a fair trial. Second Look would provide a way to revisit the sentences imposed in these cases.
Second Look laws are already in effect in several states and have received strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. The American Bar Association expressed its support for Second Look legislation in a 2022 resolution. More than 70 respected organizations – from The United Church of Christ to Safe and Just Michigan – are members of Michigan’s Second Look Coalition and support the proposed legislation. The Coalition’s members believe in second chances for those who can demonstrate rehabilitation.
In drafting the proposed Second Look legislation, the Coalition incorporated feedback from a wide array of stakeholders, including the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, the Michigan Department of Corrections, and the Michigan Judges’ Association.
Given Michigan’s severe sentencing laws and historical criminal justice system failures, we desperately need a safety valve for people who have served long sentences, who have been reformed, and who no longer threaten public safety to petition a judge for a sentence modification.
Second Look is smart policy that will make Michigan’s criminal legal system more just, more humane, and less wasteful.
Natalie Holbrook-Combs is Program Director, American Friends Service Committee. Maya Menlo is Assistant Defender, State Appellate Defender Office of Michigan.