It’s been a big year for criminal justice reform in Michigan. What’s next?

By: - December 10, 2019 9:57 am

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These days, it’s hard for Democrats and Republicans to agree on much. But this term, criminal justice reform has emerged as a rare area of consistent bipartisan agreement in Michigan’s Legislature.

From “Raise the Age” legislation signed into law in October to the “Clean Slate” expungement bills passed by the House last month, Michigan continues to reform its policies. These efforts have gained ground thanks, in part, to a steady push from organizations like Safe & Just Michigan.

Troy Rienstra

Safe & Just Michigan advocates for humane criminal justice reform policies, like investing in preventative measures and establishing better parole practices. Troy Rienstra, the group’s outreach director since 2017, says he is “hopeful for Michigan” as it continues to make progress on the criminal justice front.

“I look forward to Michigan becoming a leader in prison reform, as opposed to a state that’s being judged for its practices,” Rienstra said in a lengthy phone interview with the Advance last month.

Rienstra has been involved in the state’s criminal justice system for almost 30 years. After being convicted of armed robbery and given a life sentence in 1996, he was released from prison in 2016 on parole. Rienstra now is doing everything he can to ensure that Michiganders who are entangled in the system are entitled to — as the name of his organization implies — safety and justice.

But even before joining Safe & Just — and before being released from prison — Rienstra was doing advocacy work from behind bars. He had a hand in developing what is now called the Calvin Prison Initiative, a program which currently enrolls 88 student inmates as a partnership between the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) and Calvin University. Through the program, inmates at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia can earn a bachelor’s degree from the university within five years.

“People change. When we acknowledge that people change, and are willing to be brave enough to give them chances, we benefit. And when we’re not willing to take the chances, we suffer,” Rienstra said. “It’s just a matter of a person really understanding how much we suffer as a result of dealing with [incarcerated] people from a punitive perspective.”

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Rienstra spoke to the Advance about how far Michigan has come on reforming its criminal justice system, what the state still needs to focus on improving, and why he is hopeful for the future.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: The state Legislature recently passed Raise the Age and is working on passing expungement. What other reforms do you think Michigan needs to take up right now?

Rienstra: One of the policies we’d like to see change is length of stay. In the state of Michigan, you will serve an average of, I believe it’s 127% of your sentence. … You will spend more time in prison, by sentence, than any other state in the country.

It would be sentencing guideline reform. But it would also, again, be how much time that person spends in the prison. … We have a population of people … who are serving like lifetime-parole of a life sentence in prison. 

… And then there’s another term that’s called ‘long indeterminate sentences,’ where people may have a 50-year prison sentence. And some people got to prison when they’re 19 and 20 years old, and they won’t become eligible for parole until they’re like 60-something. And they’re not under a mandatory life sentence, but it, in essence, becomes a life sentence. And one of the terms that we use in the directly impacted or formerly incarcerated circle is, we call it ‘the other death penalty.’ 

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And so we like to have a look at how people who have been given those types of lengthy sentences could be evaluated on their transformation, their rehabilitation and the contribution that they can make to the community, because we know those resources could be used in better ways. We can start talking about how a person gets up in age, the cost of their incarceration goes from the mid-30s to up into the 40s and 50s [in thousands of dollars] real fast. So we like to see that money spent in other ways.

Michigan Advance: And those costs increase as they get older.

Rienstra: Yeah, so we’re talking about their health care needs increase, and that’s usually the main contributing factor. But for myself, I have collectively, between the five years that I spent in prison before my second conviction of a probable life term, I have almost 30 years in the criminal justice system. And that equates to, when you calculate it, [the state] spent almost $1 million on my incarceration. 

Michigan Advance: Do you think that the big one, sentencing reform, is really possible in Michigan?

Rienstra: There was an interesting report put out … around how they do prison in Norway, or what their criminal justice system looks like. So when you look around the world, there are different cultures that don’t believe in locking people up for a long time. They do believe, from a more indigenous perspective, native perspective, that people do change and are redeemable, and that restorative justice is the key to the success of a society. 

In the United States, we’re tough on crime. It’s a political benefit that people use sometimes, and then it’s also a cultural thing that we’ve really held on to that gives us some false sense of security — that if we punish people, everything will be OK. Or if we punish them excessively, I will feel safer. And that’s not actually the case. The more we punish people, the less safe we become as a society. 

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And so I think that it’s possible. I believe anything’s possible. But I think that it’ll be a tough fight, but I think it’s a fight that’s necessary. I can’t say I know what the outcome would be. 

… Yes, I am a firm believer that there are people who need to demonstrate that they have changed. And until they have [been] given a fair evaluation, they probably should be in prison. On the other hand, there are more likely people in prison who are prepared to offer great contributions to our society.

… So do I think it’s possible? I do think anything’s possible. But I think it’s just very difficult when people have been hurt, and sometimes it’s easier to deal with the hurt by keeping that thing that hurts you put away, so that it might not hurt you again. While, on the other hand, if people would have the courage, grace and mercy to be open to seeing what’s possible in what a person’s inherent potential is, and if they’re prepared to reach it, I think that our society would look a lot different and it would benefit greatly.

Michigan Advance: I was at the Homecoming Summit [last month in Lansing], and it sounds like Hassan Latif is obviously making a lot of headway [in criminal justice reform] in Colorado. What accomplishments in Colorado do you think we should take inspiration from over here?

Rienstra: Reinvestment. So, what they’ve done is … reallocat[e] resources. We don’t want to take anything away from … law enforcement or correctional officers, but how can we redistribute resources that may be available for existing programs that may not be demonstrating their value? 

… And I think that there’s a number of ways that money can be found to invest in community-based programs … that are led by people who have been directly impacted. And I wouldn’t just limit that to the people who have been to jail or prison, or even people who have successfully gone through recovery and are maintaining their sobriety, or people who have come out of domestic violence. 

… When you take a person who’s been directly impacted, they bring a unique perspective to the work and sometimes — often — a different level of passion for change.

Michigan Advance: Now legislatively, how could the state of Michigan better support efforts like [community-based programs]?

Rienstra: I would just reiterate the reallocation of resources. … And then, secondly … what types of funds aren’t really going to the service field that could potentially be repurposed to the service field to address issues that would be preventative for even the first encounter with the criminal justice system? 

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And then we have an intervention factor — jail is a person’s first point of engagement with the criminal justice system if they didn’t go into the juvenile system. But to have a better triage or intervention process that would address a person’s programmatic needs relating to the trauma that they may have experienced in their life. 

One of the things that we believe is that people just don’t wake up in the morning and decide to do bad things. They’ve seen, they’ve heard and they’ve experienced things firsthand that have shaped their core beliefs and their survival tactics. And as a result of that, they most often do wind up doing bad things. And it’s not a justification. But one thing that’s very rarely addressed is the trauma.

… The Legislature can say that we want to introduce some form of legislation that would give support to trauma-informed care services to people at various levels. And … more restorative justice-oriented programs and approaches to the disciplinary process, that’s another thing. …

Michigan Advance: What is being done for jobs and housing once people get out of the system?

Rienstra: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the voucher program that the Michigan Department [of Corrections] has. … Chris Trudell, he’s the administrator for Offender Success. It’s ironic that I could share the platform with him occasionally while I’m still on parole. 

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He’s involved with parolees being successful, and they have a program where they provide funding for people who are looking for housing after their release. They have a scale that they measure to evaluate whether people qualify for it or not. But that’s a great opportunity that the department is offering. 

Now, on the other hand, if I were to go and apply for an apartment today, I would probably be denied because I have a felony. I have a great job; great credit; would be a great neighbor and an asset to that community. I would most likely be denied, because I’ve been convicted of a violent offense. I won’t say that irony of it is, but the interesting thing that people don’t take into consideration is that the statistics show that once a person has been free from engagement with the criminal justice system for seven years, they are less likely to offend again than a person who has never offended at all.

And so, perhaps from a landlord’s perspective, they say, ‘Well, we should have the right to know who our tenants are.’ But in reality, nobody knows who anybody is. And sometimes our records reflects things from the past that can never be erased, while another person may not have anything on their record but has a record that is somewhere pending in the future. Because that’s just human nature. 

People do things. And so for those of us have done things and then convicted of those, we’re regretful for those. But at the same time, we understand that we carry a burden to be a good tenant and contribute to our community. So there’s a bias in the housing field around people who have convictions on the record — even misdemeanors can affect a person’s access to housing. 

And then the second thing is, a person could access housing — the problem is, it may not be their housing of choice. … My wife and I own four properties on our own, and we own three other properties that we like to put people into who are directly impacted, whenever we have an opportunity to do that. But at the same time, I would probably be disqualified from renting a pretty nice place that I would qualify for.

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And then the other thing is background checks. So one of the things that we’re doing around ‘Clean Slate’ legislation and expanding expungement is that it would take away an employer or a landlord or property manager’s ability to use that as a tool to disqualify a person with. 

… So we look forward to seeing that going forward, even to Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer by the end of the year. I think that’d be a great gift, not only to the individuals, but … a gift to our state, giving people the opportunity to gain gainful employment, where they could find a better job or a better position within the company that they work. … And also, when a person has access to safe housing, they become less likely to be at risk of reoffending. 

And so these are the things that kinda like make common sense. So I have to, from an empathetic perspective, because I always look at the victim side first, I have to say that I understand that there is a fear factor and a concern factor. But when a person really looks into it, and considers the common sense of it and considers the data of it and then most importantly, gets to know that individual face to face and the story, the perspective most often changes. 

… It’s a big thing to ask or to expect to happen, but as a society, it’s critical to regain our perspective of humanity and understand the reality that people can change. Because if we do not, which we have not, we’ve kind of taken a punitive approach to solving problems or things that we don’t understand or make us angry — if we take a more restorative approach, then we’ll find healing. 

… We have to ask ourselves, what does our future look like if we continue on a punitive path? … And we have to wonder at what time are we going to have more people with convictions on their record in our country than not.

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Michigan Advance: How do you think that we, as a country, can change that punitive ‘law and order’ mindset to more of an understanding that everyone’s a person and like restorative justice?

Rienstra: Here’s where I say: I don’t know. I think that one of the things that contribute to that is having an open mind … [and] to be willing to hear the stories. … I think the changing of the perspective comes by, one, … what you’re doing today with me and just being willing to listen and share a story from the perspective of a person who’s been directly impacted and has had the opportunity given to them to demonstrate what they have to offer to the community. And then, secondly, give people a chance. 

… Something else that happens in the directly impacted community of people is we try as much as we can to hold each other accountable. Because we know that if you’ve been given an opportunity, you need to make good on what your obligation is, because it will affect everybody else’s opportunity from happening for them or not.

… You have to ask the question — not only where do you go without forgiveness in society, but what is a person without hope? When you don’t have hope, you make poor decisions.

Michigan Advance: Are you feeling hopeful that both parties in Michigan appear to be pretty in sync on the issue of criminal justice? Obviously, we have a pretty partisan Legislature, but they do seem to come together on the issue of criminal justice reform. Does that give you hope?

Rienstra: I just sat up in my chair when you asked that. Because when a person really takes a look at it, it’s not just an effort; it’s an action. People are doing something about this. 

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So when you talk about bipartisan support, we can go back a little bit to what happened with the 650 … gram laws, where people received a life term for having drugs. [The “650 Lifer Law,” passed in Michigan in 1978, imposed mandatory life in prison without parole for offenders caught with 650 grams of heroin or cocaine. It was repealed in 1998]. 

Again, not a good thing, but they received a life term in prison for having drugs. And when that bar changed, people were released. And I watch most people do great work right now.

When you have the ‘Objective Parole’ bill that passed through very fast last year, it was exciting to see that happen — that the parole board is is now operating under the guidance that they shall give a person a clear path to what they need to do to be released from prison.

Now, that is something that would contribute to the reduction of the length of stay in prison. Because the parole board has the ability to, in essence, see a person released on time or have a person’s sentence extended … or to serve more time before they’re eligible to be released from prison. 

… Then you have the ‘medically frail’ [bill package] that just passed, and then you have the Raise the Age that just passed. And so now we’re looking at expanding expungement and the Clean Slate legislation that’s made it to the Senate faster than we thought that it would. 

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It is hopeful. And it’s very exciting to see that there are people on both sides of the aisle who are saying there has to be another way. And they’re doing their research. They’re looking at other states and what’s working for them. So they’re listening, and they’re being open-minded. I don’t want to say that they’re taking a risk, but that’s how it is perceived. … And I believe that their risk is going to be rewarded. By people who are being given an opportunity to, whether it’s having access to housing, jobs, release from prison, whatever it may be. 

… With the Clean Slate campaign, there has been more advocacy and more turnout of people who are directly impacted, who are now upstanding members of their community. And I think that’s being noticed in the Legislature. Members of the Legislature are getting to know them personally, and they’re saying if there are more people like you, then we want to give them a chance. So I think that’s cool.

The last thing is, I don’t want to not note the governor’s joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration …[which asks] the question: How can we improve the conditions of or the way we deal with people who are in our jail system being detained pretrial? So, Michigan is leading the way.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).