March 2024 Legislative Office visits to end JLWOP

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On March 5 and 6, 2024, a team of representatives from Safe & Just Michigan and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth visited Michigan state representatives and senators to urge them to resume action on our bills to end juvenile life without parole in Michigan.

Last year, Safe & Just Michigan worked with supportive lawmakers to introduce bills that would end the practice of sending children to die in Michigan prisons. The United States and Iran are the only two countries in the world to sentence children to life without parole, and among U.S. states, Michigan is in the minority of states still handing down the sentence. After receiving hearings in both the House and Senate, those bills have stalled in our state Capitol.

Our goal was to have genuine conversations with lawmakers and their staffers to understand why these bills may have stalled, and to see if there is anything we can do to get them moving again. Over the two days of meetings, we strengthened relationships, received some good advice and I was reassured during these meetings that there is hope these bills will pass by the end of the year.

As always, Safe & Just Michigan was willing to meet with any legislator who wanted to work with us on this important legislation. We don’t care if a lawmaker has a D or an R after their name — if they care about the same issues we do, we’re ready to sit down and talk. With that in mind, we made appointments with both Democratic and Republican legislators who are on the House Criminal Justice and Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety committees. We prioritized the legislators who we believe are key to getting these bills moved across the finish line, such as Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Senator Jeff Iwin (D-Ann Arbor) on the Democratic side. Representative Curt Vanderwall (R-Ludington) and Joseph Fox (R-Fremont) on the Republican side. We also met with Speaker of the House Joe Tate‘s (D-Detroit) office. Over the two-day period, our team of six people visited about 20 legislative offices.

These discussions were overwhelmingly positive. While it wouldn’t be strategic to get into too many details at this point, we asked the lawmakers what they would like the bills to look like in order to get their support, and we asked them for their ideas for amendments. Most of the people we talked to were receptive to the conversation and gave us good ideas to incorporate moving forward.

If there is one word of caution, it is this: legislative leadership remains cautious about criminal justice reform issues. We continue to have discussions with leadership about the importance of supporting initiatives such as ending juvenile life without parole for people under the age of nineteen and instituting a second look policy for incarcerated people. But being that this is an important election year, some in leadership are concerned about labels their opponents can put on them if courageous votes are taken on these bills.

I don’t see it this way at all.

As a supporter of Safe & Just Michigan, you already know how important criminal justice reform is to Michigan, and how many people want to see action from this 102nd Legislature. I firmly believe that politicians who push for passage of ending juvenile life without parole, Second Look, fixing Medically Frail Parole and similar issues are giving voters a reason to choose them at the ballot box. And I believe that’s especially true in a year like this, when polls are showing an enthusiasm gap among voters.

So where does that leave us?

I’ve always been an optimistic person, and this is no exception. Ending juvenile life without parole just makes sense, and I believe our legislators will come to see what elected leaders in every other nation and the majority of U.S. states have already realized: we shouldn’t be sending our kids to die in prison. We now have the data on released former juvenile lifers have a recidivism rate of less than 1 percent, so we aren’t posing a risk to our communities, we are contributing to our communities. There simply isn’t a good reason not to pass these bills.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need help! As I mentioned above, some of our lawmakers are still skittish about touching criminal justice reform issues. That means they need reassurance that they won’t be punished for taking up the bills that matter the most to us. We can do that by communicating to them that these are our priorities, and that when they act on our priorities, we will support them.

Now is the time to pick up the phone and call your elected officials. Let them know that you want to see action on the bills to end juvenile life without parole. They are House Bills 4160-4164 and Senate Bills 119-123. Find out if your state representative or senator is holding local office hours or coffee hours — events when any constituent can show up to talk about what’s important to them. You can find out about these events by calling their office. Unsure who your elected officials are? You can look up your state representative HERE or your state senator HERE.

Meanwhile, I owe it to the transformed individuals who I left behind to keep making office visits to key legislators until the bills are passed. It’s important that we keep criminal justice reform in the forefront of our elected officials’ minds.

While it is frustrating that this legislation has stalled, I want everyone to know that we have not given up. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I do believe we will end juvenile life without parole in our state. That’s why we have let our elected officials know how important these bills are — to us, to the community of returning citizens, and all citizens in the state of Michigan.

Their courage to act will be rewarded. Failure to act is not an option.

~Ronnie Waters
Community Engagement Specialist

The post Office visits to end JLWOP appeared first on Safe & Just Michigan.