The MC: The Mackinac Center Blog

Finding Agreement in Criminal Justice Reform

Sound priorities on sound policies for all

The state’s most potent power is the ability to penalize a person for crimes committed. Thus, the manner in which the state administers that responsibility is a fundamental issue of liberty.

The fiscal component is of concern as well; every year Michigan’s corrections budget consumes nearly 2 billion state taxpayer dollars. The business community, always interested in a talented and vibrant workforce, recognizes the value of training and societal assimilation for former inmates. Finally, it is appropriate to evaluate how free-market solutions can improve the efficiency of the justice system.

A focus on criminal justice reform is not new for the Mackinac Center; our first study on civil asset forfeiture was published in 1998. A new development, however, is a recognition by each branch of government in Michigan that reform recommendations should be considered.

For example, in May Gov. Rick Snyder called for reforms to address prisoner re-entry, preventative solutions and the problem of overcriminalization. Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young stated his priority that Michigan’s judiciary to be a “national model of efficiency and service to the public.” Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman has urged the legislature to improve the definitions of criminal intent in the penal code. House Republicans this year announced several bold criminal justice reforms in the House Action Plan, with Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter championing civil asset forfeiture reform.

The Mackinac Center’s current priorities include:

  • Criminal intent reform: The severity of punishment for a crime should be related to the defendant’s culpable mental state (“mens rea”), and when a criminal law is silent on the element of intent then a default standard should be required which requires a guilty state of mind to convict. The Michigan House unanimously passed a bill establishing this last week, House Bill 4713. Senate Bill 20 addresses the same issue.
  • Civil asset forfeiture reform: The police should not be able to keep property taken from individuals who are never charged with a crime, much less convicted. A package of bills just enacted by the Legislature takes steps to constrain this practice. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition that included the Mackinac Center, ALCU of Michigan, Fix Forfeiture, Congressman Tim Walberg and Attorney General Bill Schuette.
  • Overcriminalization: Michigan has 3,100 crimes on the books. The criminal code should be used to penalize truly blameworthy conduct. Unfortunately, criminal law is increasingly used as a regulatory tool, which can constrain the behavior of well-intentioned people and impose severe consequences on actions that most people wouldn’t consider wrong. As a modest first step, the House recently passed a package of bills that repeal outdated and unnecessary crimes.
  • Controlling corrections costs: Mackinac Center expert Michael LaFaive has published many recommendations that would result in trimming corrections costs, including the privatization of prison management.
  • Examining Michigan’s prison population: A study from the Pew Center on the States found that Michigan’s sentences and average prison stays have increased over time and exceed the national average, resulting in higher correctional costs. It is appropriate to evaluate whether these lengthier prison stays have improved Michigan’s public safety.

Several other criminal justice issues are under consideration in Michigan: presumptive parole, sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences and medical parole among them. Organizations like the ACLU, U.S. Justice Action Network, the Council of State Government and Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending are providing leadership on many of these issues. Sentencing and parole policies can be refined using research and empirical evidence in order to incarcerate prisoners who are dangerous and most likely to reoffend.

A distinct feature of criminal justice reform is that it brings together organizations and individuals from many perspectives. The Mackinac Center and ACLU, for example, don’t often agree on policy recommendations, but we have proudly partnered on forfeiture and criminal intent legislation.

Effective collaboration on bipartisan issues requires that we focus attention on areas of agreement, not areas of sharp disagreement. Disagreements should be openly and candidly acknowledged, but not used to fray cooperation.

Sound policy requires that we consider the long-term effects of laws on all people, not simply the short-term effects on some people. Speaking recently on criminal justice reform, I encouraged a bipartisan audience to communicate with each other with an open mind, to avoid personal attacks or assigning motives to opponents. Citizens with differing political and ideological perspectives should acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative points of view without having to agree with them.

Senate Votes for Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Detroit Free Press quotes Skorup on development

On Oct. 7, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a package of bills to limit civil asset forfeiture and require more disclosure from police when property is seized.

The Mackinac Center has worked on the issue of civil asset forfeiture for years, and recently published a study with the ACLU of Michigan detailing its abuses.

In light of the Senate's recent vote, the Detroit Free Press published an article on the reforms and the work still to be done, quoting Mackinac Center Policy Analyst Jarrett Skorup:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Mackinac Center for Public Policy released a report last week calling for a ban against civil forfeiture, so a conviction would be required before assets could be taken.

Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center, applauded the progress in the new legislation, but warned that existing laws still allow the police agency doing the seizure to keep the assets, a term critics call "policing for profit."

"We see that as a big problem," Skorup said. "We see states that have eliminated civil asset forfeitures all together and that's our preference."

The full article is available at the Free Press website.

Other outlets covering the Senate vote and Mackinac Center research, include the Battle Creek Enquirer, Fox 17 and MLive.

As bills to reform civil asset forfeiture work through the Michigan Legislature, the Mackinac Center has voiced strong support, both for the reforms, and for going further by eliminating of forfeiture altogether.

Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center and author of the study "Civil Forfeiture," co-authored an op-ed with Jorge Marin of Americans for Tax Reform on the benefits of civil forfeiture reform and what the political right should support major changes. That op-ed was recently published in MLive:

There are two main types of forfeiture: Criminal and civil. When used correctly, criminal forfeiture is an important tool for law enforcement. If police arrest and convict a drug dealer who has been unemployed for a decade, but owns two mansions and a Cadillac Escalade, the forfeiture procedure allows that property to be transferred to the government for compensating victims, fighting crime, and other uses. Nobody has a right to keep property gained through crime – the "fruit of a poisoned tree." But criminal forfeiture happens only after a person has been convicted of a crime.

Civil forfeiture is different and needs to be reformed, or better, eliminated. This process allows law enforcement to seize and forfeit someone's property even if they have not been charged, much less convicted, of a crime. In Michigan, which civil libertarian groups rate as having among the worst forfeiture laws in the nation, this practice is widespread. Dozens of examples have popped up over the years, and some are particularly egregious.

The full op-ed is available at MLive's website.

State Media Covers Push for Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Mackinac Center releases study with ACLU of Michigan

Civil asset forfeiture, the process of law enforcement confiscating private property without charging its owner with a crime, is running rampant in Michigan today. Current law provides little in the way of oversight for or limits on its use, but a package of bills awaiting a vote in the Senate would provide transparency and some limits on its use.

On September 29, the Mackinac Center released a study, Civil Forfeiture in Michigan, detailing the many abuses of civil forfeiture, co-written with the ACLU of Michigan. Several media outlets have covered the study and the general push for reform.

MLive wrote:

The reform push has brought together unlikely partners from various sides of the political spectrum.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, in a joint report released this week, recommended eliminating civil asset forfeiture altogether, limiting the practice to post-conviction criminal cases.

But both groups are also supporting the Michigan bills now before the Senate, including the proposed reporting requirements and increased evidentiary standards.

The Midland Daily News also covered the effort, as did CBS Detroit, the Traverse City Record-Eagle, WOOD-TV, the Times Herald, WMMT, the Grand Haven Tribune, Click On Detroit, WXYZ, and the Petoskey News-Review.

Additionally, Mackinac Center Policy Analyst Jarrett Skorup, co-author of the Civil Forfeiture study, joined WKAR for an interview on the topic on October 1.

Skorup was also quoted in an editorial published by The Detroit News on October 5.

October 2, 2015 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call Report

Electronic proof of insurance and criminal justice reform

Now with one click you can approve or disapprove of key votes by your legislators using the VoteSpotter smart phone app. Visit and download VoteSpotter today!

House Bill 4193, Allow electronic "proof of insurance" for drivers: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To revise the state’s no-fault insurance law to allow “proof of insurance” documents that motorists are required to have when driving to be an electronic communication from the insurance company visible on a mobile device. If asked a driver could be required to forward the information to a designated site.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

House Bill 4102, Appropriate money for State Police lawsuit settlement; Flint water system: Passed 30 to 5

To appropriate $7.725 million to settle a lawsuit over injuries sustained in a crash caused by a State Police car chase. Also, to make a $100 "placeholder" appropriation related to the possibility of changing Flint's municipal water supplier back to the Detroit system (which serves most communities in the metropolitan region).

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

House Bill 4713, Require “culpable mental state” for criminal conviction: Passed 106 to 0 in the House

To establish that (with some significant exceptions) if a law does not indicate whether a “culpable mental state” (“mens rea”) is required to establish guilt, the presumption will be that this is required, meaning that prosecutors must show that the defendant violated the law “purposely, knowingly or recklessly.” This would not be the case if a law explicitly imposes a “strict liability” standard. Under current law, many complex “administrative” offenses authorize criminal penalties for actions that a regular person would not know are illegal.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

House Bill 4138, Authorize "presumptive parole": Passed 67 to 39 in the House

To require that parole be granted to prisoners who have served their minimum time if the person has a “high probability” under a "validated risk assessment instrument" of not being a risk to public safety, and also meets other criteria specified in the bill and current law, subject to a number of restrictions and exceptions.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

SOURCE:, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit

September 25, 2015 MichiganVotes Weekly Roll Call Report

Food carts, nursing home over-regulation, voter approval for tax

Now with one click you can approve or disapprove of key votes by your legislators using the VoteSpotter smart phone app. Visit and download VoteSpotter today!

House Bill 4166, Require voter approval of county promotions tax: 35 to 2 in the Senate

To revise a law that allows counties to impose a 0.5 mill property tax without a vote of the people, for trade expositions, tourism promotion or to advertise the county’s “agricultural advantages.” The bill would change the law to require voter approval for such taxes, with a renewal vote required every five years.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

Senate Bill 65, Repeal ban on for-profit nursing home hiring doctors: Passed 69 to 35 in the House

To allow for-profit nursing homes to employ a physician, dentist or other member of a medical "learned profession." Under current law only nonprofit nursing homes may have a doctor on staff, while for-profits are restricted to engaging doctors on a contract basis.

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

Senate Bill 64, Replace detailed nursing home regulations with "best practices" guidelines: Passed 67 to 37 in the House

To repeal sections of the extensive regulatory regime imposed on nursing homes, and instead establish that patient care policies, compliance procedures, outcome measures and more should be based on nationally recognized, evidence-based guidelines or best-practices (rather than detailed regulations promulgated by government agencies).

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

Senate Bill 144, Repeal inspection requirement for stands selling “low risk foods”: Passed 89 to 16 in the House

To give local health departments the option of requiring an "in-office consultation" rather than a facility inspection of a “temporary food service establishment” that serves only “low risk foods” as defined in the bill (examples include precooked hotdogs, popcorn, or ice cream).

Who Voted “Yes” and Who Voted “No”

SOURCE:, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit

Incentives and the Electricity Industry in Michigan

Gary Wolfram's recommendations for a better power market

Gary Wolfram, an economics professor at Hillsdale College and member of the Mackinac Center’s Board of Scholars, has just released a new report on Michigan’s electricity industry. The study was published by the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum and provides an overview of the history and current organization of this important industry.

Wolfram highlights a few troubling facts about Michigan’s electricity market. First, Michigan has the highest retail rates in the Midwest — a fact we’ve highlighted in the past. They are 25 percent higher than Illinois, the surrounding state with the lowest rates. Second, Michigan electricity was the least reliable among the Midwest states in 2013. The average outage per customer was 779 minutes per year, more than double the next highest figure in Minnesota.

The report also makes several recommendations for how to improve Michigan’s electricity market:

  1. Expand retail competition to put pressure on the public utilities (Consumers Energy and DTE) “to improve their production and reduce rates or face the loss of their customer base.”
  2. Structurally separate who owns the means of generation with who owns the means of distribution, creating “incentives for new and existing generators to innovate, in particular those in the renewable energy fields.”
  3. Let customers specifically purchase power produced through renewable energy sources.
  4. Require utilities to purchase power produced through renewable, co-generation and waste-to-energy sources at the “market price.”
  5. Use peak-load and other differential pricing mechanisms to encourage customers to use energy more efficiently.

There is sure to be much debate over the future of Michigan’s electricity market in the coming months. This new report is a solid overview of the main issues and provides recommendations that should be considered by policymakers. Although the industry is heavily regulated, individuals operating within it still respond to incentives, and Dr. Wolfram has given careful thought to how to improve those incentives to benefit Michigan rate payers.

How to Improve Economic Development Transparency

State considers changes to economic development disclosure

The state is looking to improve its transparency and is targeting its economic development reports, according to MIRS, a Lansing-insider newsletter.

The state received suboptimal ratings from the Public Interest Research Group and is seeking to improve its position. It is good that the administration is looking to make these programs more transparent. Under current policies, private companies will receive roughly $800 million in subsidies in the upcoming fiscal year, and taxpayers will not be allowed to know which companies are receiving their money.

The state’s legacy tax credit programs are the least transparent. Michigan is not signing any new tax credit agreements with firms, but nevertheless, is making good on the deals it made in the past. This amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in foregone tax revenue and comes at a time when the state is trying to find $1.2 billion to improve the roads.

These corporate welfare deals are questionable in their effectiveness, but the lack of transparency about them is outrageous. Although this information used to be made public, the state has changed its mind in recent years, and now the receipt of these tax credits is considered confidential tax information and thus nondisclosable.

This information should be made public again. Taxpayers should also be able to get a project-by-project breakdown of estimated and actual jobs and costs, as we wrote with PIRGIM last year. It is about time that policymakers revisit this issue.

State Media Features Overcriminalization Fight

Mackinac Center partners with ACLU, others

The Mackinac Center is one of several groups hoping to save the state millions and increase the freedom of Michiganders by implementing common sense criminal justice reforms.

Focusing on the problem of overcriminalization (Michigan has over 3,100 crimes on the books), the Mackinac Center has pushed for reforms that would cut the number of crimes and limit the liability of people who unknowingly break them. Executive Vice President Mike Reitz recently discussed the recommendations on a panel in Lansing, covered by MLive:

Michael Reitz, executive vice president of free-market think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said that over the years the legislature has over-criminalized actions that do not actually put the public at risk. He pointed to efforts to repeal old laws and a new focus on criminal justice issues.

The full article is available at MLive's website.

WLNS also covered the event, as did Bridge Magazine.

On Sept. 22, Mackinac Center Director of Research Michael Van Beek joined Frank Beckmann on WJR to discuss overcriminalization. A recording of that segment is available on their website.

Skorup Joins Steve Gruber for Forfeiture Discussion

Bills on forfeiture working through legislature

Civil asset forfeiture — the process of law enforcement confiscating money or possessions from civilians without charging them with a crime — has become an enormous problem in Michigan. The Institute for Justice has ranked Michigan's civil asset forfeiture laws among the worst in the country, but a package of bills in the legislature could help fix them.

Mackinac Center Policy Analyst Jarrett Skorup recently joined radio personality Steve Gruber on WJIM to discuss the process of civil asset forfeiture and how to make the system better for Michiganders.

For more information on civil asset forfeiture, visit