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A roundup of recent Michigan newspaper editorials

- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

Grand Haven Tribune. Feb. 3

Sentencing reform is needed now

No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. How does that grab you?

At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world - yup, even Cuba, Russia and a host of other countries that might surprise you.

Among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, the competition isn't even close - Israel comes in second, at 223 per 100,000. We're No. 1, and that's not a good thing.

A lot has been reported about our nation's prison system and its bloated population. Why is this?

A big reason is federal mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes. After several decades of this - a process by which Congress and state legislatures shifted decision-making powers away from judges and handed it to prosecutors - it's time to admit failure. And do something about it.

In order to become elected, candidates had to - and in many cases still have to - take a real tough stand on crime. On the surface, this may look good, but the resulting sentencing mandates have helped to bloat the population of our nation's prisons.

A U.S. Senate bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, is catching the attention of conservatives and liberals in Washington. It addresses the injustice and deficit-busting costs of incarcerating low-level offenders for long stretches. The federal prison population is now 219,000 (up from 25,000 in 1980), about half of whom are doing time for nonviolent drug-related offenses.

And that's just the federal side of things. State prisons hold many more people on similar mandatory-minimum laws that are testing the humane limits of state facilities, putting pressure on state taxes, and handcuffing state and county judges in sentencing evaluations.

The bill - sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. - would give federal judges more latitude in mandatory-minimum cases, allowing for lighter sentences if a first-time, nonviolent crime isn't considered egregious and a shorter term would pose no safety threat to the public.

"Our country's mandatory-minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," Paul said as he and Leahy introduced the measure. "This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory-minimum penalties."

Federal sentencing guidelines would still speak loudly, notably in cases in which the offender has a previous record, is prone to violence or is deemed a threat to re-offend. A judge levying a sentence below the mandatory minimum would have to issue a detailed, reviewable opinion to justify the decision.

We believe this bill deserves a good look, and not just to keep down costs of our prisons and jails.

Too often judges have to go against their own wisdom and experience in sentencing; they are effectively removed from the process. The stacking of charges carrying mandatory minimums by prosecutors is an efficient way to keep cases from going to trial, but it saps a defendant's ability to contest the charges.

Plea-bargaining in such cases isn't much of a negotiation; it's a take-it-or-leave-it erosion of one's constitutional right to be heard in court. Taxpayers get socked on the other end, too, after a first-time offender spends a decade or more in jail.

Proponents have said we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.

We strongly agree.

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Oakland Press. Feb. 3.

Gas tank cleanup funds should be allocated for their intended purpose

It seemed like a good idea at the time: levying a small tax on each gallon of gasoline sold in our state to deal with the costs of removing leaking underground gasoline tanks and cleaning contaminated soil around them.

The tax, 7/8 of a cent per gallon, was levied starting in 1988. The cleanup program was stopped 7 years later, reportedly after it was overwhelmed by the need.

But collection of the tax has continued. And so has spending from it.

And now there's a move to return spending to its original intent.

According to a published report, it's been used for a number of purposes. It's helped fund some programs at the Department of Environmental Quality. It's helped pay salaries of the employees with the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development who check accuracy of gasoline pumps. It's helped pay off environmental bonds issued by the state.

And it's not small change. The tax brings in about $50 million annually. A total of $850 million has been spent from the fund just in the last nine years. Wouldn't that have dealt with a lot of leaky tanks? Removed a lot of contaminated soil around them?

Perhaps. But we gather the remediation is an expensive process, sometimes reaching six digits.

Against that, the number of leaky tanks, contaminated soil needing remediation has increased, now to more than 9,000 at more than 7,000 sites. Not all of the owners are known. Some who are will never afford the required cleanup. And some of those lost their businesses years ago. Some, in fact, lost their businesses when the fund stopped accepting new claims in 1995.

A proposal in Lansing would require the revenue to be used for its original purpose, and remove it from ordinary state budgeting by assigning control to an authority-like board.

The proposal is in search of legislative sponsors.

We hope it finds them, and urge our own legislators to sign on.

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The Detroit News. Feb. 5.

Surplus serves both policy and politics

Spreading Michigan's budget surplus to cover as many bases as possible seems to be the goal of Gov. Rick Snyder's final first-term spending plan, while not-so-subtly answering the demands of election year politics. Presented Wednesday, it's a smart blueprint that gets a good deal of mileage out of the $1 billion windfall.

The big winner is education, both K-12 schools and public colleges and universities would receive sizable increases in the 2015 spending plan.

The governor also wants $254 million of the surplus for one-time transportation spending, an amount even he acknowledges is a temporary Band-Aid, well short of what's needed to repair the state's deteriorating infrastructure.

And there's a tax cut - about $100 million to middle and low income Michiganians.

It's no coincidence that the hike in education spending and tax relief for lower income families hit two major Democratic talking points that have already emerged in the gubernatorial race. Using figures from earlier budget proposals, Democrats are attempting to tar Snyder for cutting support for schools, and for favoring businesses over individuals in tax policy.

It's an election-year reality that the governor is not likely to get the $1.2 billion annual funding stream he wants to repair Michigan's infrastructure. While again asking lawmakers to consider raising the gas or sales tax or vehicle registration fees, Snyder is using the quarter-billion taken from the surplus as a hedge. It's not enough, but if approved it will help keep roads and bridges from getting much worse.

Both Democrats and Republican lawmakers are clamoring for a tax cut. Snyder is bowing in the direction of Democrats in expanding the homestead property tax credit for families earning less than $60,000 a year. He'll likely face a fight from his own caucus; GOP legislators want a more broad-based cut.

Snyder's proposal makes up for some of what low-income workers lost when the earned income tax credit was wiped away. And most importantly, it provides relief on the bottom of the income scale, without sacrificing Michigan's flat tax, which remains one of the state's few tax advantages.

Even with so many hands grabbing at the surplus, Snyder stuck to his own priority of addressing Michigan's long-term liabilities and stabilizing its budget. The budget would shore up the state's rainy day fund by another $120 million, bringing it to $700 million. That's a smart move. Michigan has a long way to go before its savings put it in a comfortable position to weather unexpected downturns. Ideally, that fund should grow to $1.6 billion.

Snyder also wants a separate savings account of $122 million to cover costs associated with Michigan's recent Medicaid expansion.

Educators should be happy with this budget. Snyder is seeking a 3 percent increase in funding for K-12 public schools and community colleges and a 6.1 percent boost for higher education. This is the largest jump in higher ed funding in Michigan since 2001 and would help restore some of the state support that's shrunk considerably in the past decade.

In return, the governor rightly expects the state's 15 public universities to hold tuition increases to less than 3.2 percent. In total, education gets a $600 million increase in this budget.

Lawmakers have a solid blueprint to work with as they begin budget deliberations. They can make it better by answering their responsibility to Michigan's roads and bridges.

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Lansing State Journal. Feb. 3.

Why punish mentally ill defendant?

If Ingham County voters are perplexed by the propensity of their prosecuting attorneys to pursue vulnerable defendants who later turn out to be innocent, one can hardly blame them. Yet another example has come to light in the case of Kosgar Lado, a Sudanese refugee who was charged with murder last summer after a confusing police interrogation in which Lado said both that he "just shot him" and that he "didn't shoot nobody." But Lansing police detectives concerned about the discrepancies in his statements continued their investigation. And a month later, the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office dropped the charge. (Indeed, another man has been charged with murder and ordered to stand trial in that case.)

Yet prosecutors then decided to pursue a felony charge of lying to police against Lado, who has spent months tied up in the criminal justice system because of it. During those months, Lado has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and ruled incompetent to stand trial. Still, prosecutors have not yet dropped the charge. Following an LSJ report on the case and a competency hearing last week, Lado's attorney said he expects the charge will be dropped as part of an agreement that Lado receive mental health treatment.

Experts in wrongful prosecution and false confessions were surprised to hear of a prosecutor pursuing a false confession charge against a mentally ill individual who made the alleged confession under the duress of police interrogation. As Steven Drizin, director of Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school, put it: "Lado did not purposely lead the police into a rabbit hole. He was arrested by police, put in handcuffs and taken ... for an interrogation. He clearly did not want to talk with the police." Another expert said about 25 percent of convicts later cleared by DNA evidence had made a confession during questioning.

Drizin said LPD learned from the case of Claude McCollum, who spent nearly three years behind bars after being convicted of a killing even though video evidence existed that showed he was elsewhere at the time of the crime. Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III fired an assistant prosecutor who handled the case.

It seems LPD has raised its standards for handling vulnerable defendants such as those who may be mentally ill or those who may be developmentally disabled. That made a difference for Lado. Now if only Dunnings and his prosecutors might do the same.

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