LANSING, Mich., June 19, 2020 — The Michigan House recently passed a bipartisan package of criminal justice reform bills aimed at creating more appropriate penalties for the manufacture, distribution and possession of controlled substances by an overwhelming majority. The new sentencing guidelines would consider how negatively certain substances impact our communities, with substances responsible for the most overdose deaths carrying the stiffest penalties. The package includes House Bills 5137, 5183, 5299, 5627, 5657 and 5658.
“Many aspects of our criminal justice system are outdated, but possibly none more so than the way in which we handle non-violent drug offenses,” said state Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit). “Our laws have failed to keep up with the increase in the abuse of prescription drugs and opioids, and many times the penalties for the most dangerous drugs are the most lenient, while those convicted of using substances with lower overdose rates receive lengthy prison sentences. With Detroit as the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in Michigan, we must better align our sentencing guidelines to meet the real threats facing our families and neighbors as we work to keep our community safe.”
In 2018, roughly seven Michiganders died each day from a drug overdose. Opioids were responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, accounting for about five and a half deaths daily across the state, with Wayne and Macomb Counties reporting the most deaths per capita. Overdose rates within the African American community are increasing at a particularly alarming rate, increasing by almost 20 percent between 2017 and 2018.
“My bill, as part of a bipartisan package, will allow prosecutors the discretion to amend or reduce charges as they find appropriate, giving them an additional weapon in our fight against opioid addiction — because we learned some important lessons from the War on Drugs,” said state Rep. Brian K. Elder (D-Bay City). “This legislation will make our neighborhoods, family members and loved ones safer.”
Currently, Schedule 1 and 2 narcotic drugs, which have no or limited medical use, carry the strongest penalties for unlawful manufacture and delivery. However, many types of drugs, from carfentanil to codeine, are lumped together even though they carry different risks of addiction and death. This is an outdated way to approach laws governing controlled substances. We should instead focus on the threats they actually pose to the community. This legislation would create a system in which the longest prison terms would be reserved for the drugs associated with the highest overdose rates, reducing the penalties for some substances such as cocaine, while increasing the penalties for others like fentanyl.
“A large problem with the standards in place for probation is that they often punish the poor, and in order to right these wrongs we must put discretion back in the hands of our judges,” said state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids). “That’s what my bill will do, give courts and judges the freedom to prescribe the most appropriate method of justice based on the facts and circumstances.”
In addition to Tate, Elder and LaGrand, bill sponsors include state Reps. Julie Alexander (R-Jackson) and Gary Howell (R-Deerfield Twp.). All six bills in this package have been transmitted to the Senate, where they await a hearing in the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.