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83 – How the Bail Process Unfairly Puts the Poor in Prison

83 – How the Bail Process Unfairly Puts the Poor in Prison
John S. Cooper is the executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, an organization that advances policies that end Michigan’s over-use of incarceration and promote community safety and healing. As currently constituted, Michigan’s criminal justice system prioritizes punishment, over public safety. Most policies emphasize being tough on crime instead of helping people get back on their feet. Check out the latest installment of Open Mike for John’s insights on how we can better advocate for the 2 million Michiganders with criminal records, ways to influence legislators to pass holistic, crime reduction bills, as well as exciting, statewide developments in criminal record expungement.

Show Notes

[00:21] John Cooper’s background and bio as Executive Director of Safe & Just Michigan

[00:53] Welcome to Open Mike, John!

[01:12] Where are you calling in from, so our viewers and listeners are in the know?

[01:47 Before we jump in, what does Safe & Just Michigan do? What are you all about?

[02:55] Is Michigan too tough on criminals?

[03:16] As currently constituted, Michigan’s criminal justice system is about punishment, not public safety — policies emphasize being tough on crime instead of helping people get back on their feet. We hold their criminal records over their heads for the rest of their lives.

[04:48] If there were no prison, what would deter people from committing crimes?

[05:17] Some crimes originate as lack of opportunity. If you throw a poor person into jail for committing a poverty-related crime, nothing is going to change unless you address those underlying problems. When they’re released, it will be worse because they will have fewer job opportunities due to their criminal record. It’s a self-replicating cycle.

[06:16] What does Safe & Just Michigan advocate for instead of prison time?

[06:50] Half of all criminal offenses in Michigan are traffic offenses. The majority of those are low-level misdemeanors, such as driving with a suspended license. 5% of Michigan drivers get their licenses suspended annually. 95% of those suspensions are because the person is too poor to pay a fine. The issue is poverty, not public safety.

[08:09] What is your thought process on drunk driving that doesn’t injure anyone or driving without a valid license? Is jail a deterrent for those types of offenses?

[11:08] Are you working on influencing legislature to change the laws surrounding posting bail?

[11:27] At any given time, there are about 8,000 people in Michigan who are in jail. 50% of them are held pre-trial because they can’t post bail. Most bail postings are less than $5,000 and correlate to low-level misdemeanors. Yet, we have a bail system that operates under the assumption that most people should pay pre-trial, which is inconsistent with our Constitution as shown by the SCOTUS case United States v. Salerno.

[12:53] The Bail Project is a national nonprofit organization that pays bail for people in need, reuniting families and restoring the presumption of innocence. The Bail Project currently operates in 9 cities around the country, including Detroit.

[15:38] 90% of people who post bail show up to their court dates — if you spend that money, you’re going to want it back. People whose bails are paid for courtesy of The Bail Project still show up for court when it’s not their money to recoup.

[16:20] Is it true that Michiganders have longer sentences than other states?

[17:52] 20% of people charged in Michigan are charged habitually. The length of prison sentences has increased dramatically over the last 25 years, partially because lower-level offenders, especially drug offenders, are not being sent to prison as often.

[19:32] Michigan had 37,000 – 38,000 people in the prison system prior to the pandemic. It’s currently down several thousand, although due more to lower of admissions than more parolees… the vast majority of people in the system are ineligible for parole because they haven’t fulfilled terms of their sentences.

[20:45] How many people are in the prison system due to marijuana-related offenses?

[21:44] That brings us to expungement… can you explain what it is, who’s eligible, and what’s going on with expungement in Michigan?

[25:48] There are roughly 2 million people in Michigan with criminal records, yet only 2,000 – 3,000 records are expunged each year.

[26:00] Is every type of felony expungable?

[26:57] Tell us about the recent traffic offense expungement laws that passed — did Safe & Just Michigan play a role in that?

[27:25] The first goal of this bill package is to expand eligibility for the petition process. The second was to bring expungement policy more in line with charging practices.

[29:01] Did these bills make it easier for people to file for an expungement without the expense of an attorney?

[29:18] Michigan has passed a “Clean Slate Bill” where if someone with a criminal record stays out of trouble for ten years, their record will automatically be sealed/expunged.

[29:40] How does someone watching or listening to this episode know how to verify whether they can check “no” on a job or housing application asking about criminal history?

[30:20] Before the bill goes into effect in October 2022, Safe & Just Michigan will create a database/infrastructure where people can check the status of their record and whether their offenses have been sealed.

[34:14] The reality is that every state has hundreds of thousands of people with criminal records and we, as a society have a duty to clean those up so people can move on with their lives.

[34:41] Annually, there are $87 billion in lost productivity that arises from people underemployed or locked out of the labor force due to criminal records. 

[34:54] Over a ten-year period, University of Michigan Law School studied outcomes for people with expunged records. They discovered that within a year of their records being sealed, their incomes, on average, went up 23% and employment rates went up 11%. They also looked at recidivism rates and discovered these people commit crimes at rates equal to or less than the general public.

[36:33] In April this law goes into effect… but it may be a couple years before we see the automatic expungements, yes?

[37:03] In April, the law that advocates for an expanded petition process goes into effect.

[37:27] The State Court Administrative Office has an MC227 form that guides a person through the expungement application process as well as an MC228 form that one would hand to a judge if you successfully navigate the hearing process.

[38:20] If anyone has eligibility under the current law, please apply soon! Historically, it’s a process that takes six-to-nine-months.

[39:15] Thank you to John Cooper for his admirable, hard work and for appearing on Open Mike!

[40:05] Make sure to check out Safe & Just Michigan. If you know someone with a criminal record, forward them this podcast so they can educate themselves on the expungement process.

[40:21] Thanks for checking out Open Mike — we’ll see you next time!

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