New prison reform bills show ‘people are greater than their biggest mistake’

Second Look bills would allow incarcerated people to petition for sentence reduction

By: - May 8, 2023 3:50 am

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There is one word that surfaces time and again when prison reform advocates talk about the newly introduced Second Look Sentencing Act: hope.

The package, made up of state Senate Bills 321325, was introduced on Wednesday and would allow individuals who are incarcerated in Michigan to petition a judge for a reduction of their sentence after serving at least 10 years in prison. Corresponding House legislation is expected to soon be introduced. 

“It represents hope and an opportunity to prove to the world that you change, that people are greater than their biggest mistake,” said Ken Nixon, the director of outreach and community partnerships at Safe & Just, a Lansing-based criminal justice reform organization.

The ability to petition for a sentence reduction, lawmakers said, would allow a judge to consider how much a person has changed while serving time and whether the original sentence was too extreme to begin with. The judge would be able to look at the person’s age at the time of the crime and how that relates to newer research on brain development, evidence about the person’s mental or physical health now or at the time of the offense, whether the person was a victim of human trafficking, if the incarcerated individual experienced domestic abuse, and other factors, the legislation’s sponsors said.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) attends a Lansing press conference on bills to strengthen hate crime laws, April 26, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

“We’ve got so many folks in prison in Michigan who are older or they’ve already served a long amount of time and they don’t need to be there,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), a longtime champion of prison reform who is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 321 and co-sponsored the other bills in the package. “They’re not a risk to the community anymore, but we’ve had these really long sentences and haven’t given people this opportunity.

“It’s all about a second chance and a second look,” Chang continued.

In a February interview with the Advance, Pete Martel, a program coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, said the Second Look legislation is especially instrumental in addressing Michigan being an outlier when it comes to long prison sentences. The state has one of the country’s longest average prison sentences, and, as of 2021, about 15,500 people in Michigan were serving sentences of 15 years or longer.

“We have thousands of people serving these long sentences; many of them are sentenced to die in prison,” said Martel, who was incarcerated from 1994 through 2008 and has gone on to lead prison reform efforts in Michigan.

“Second Look seeks to address problems we have in Michigan with people serving long sentences, and there’s no avenue for release, regardless of their behavior, who they develop into” while in prison, Martel continued.

Of the incarcerated population in Michigan, 30% have already served 10 years of their sentence and nearly one in five have already served 15 years, according to a February report from The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for criminal justice reform nationwide.

There are a little more than 32,000 people incarcerated in Michigan. More than one third of this group includes people who’ve already served 10 years and were under age 25 at the time of their crime. On average, the cost to keep an individual incarcerated is $47,000 per year in Michigan.  

“In Michigan, we keep people locked up far longer than is necessary for any public safety benefit,” said Chuck Warpehoski, project director at the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration. “People who have spent a long time in prison, when they come home they’re the ones who have the lowest chances of recidivism. It costs immense amounts of taxpayer dollars to keep them incarcerated.”

We’ve got so many folks in prison in Michigan who are older or they’ve already served a long amount of time and they don’t need to be there.

– Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit)

Those costs, Warpehoski added, will continue to soar as prisoners serving long sentences age and increasingly need health care services. Why, advocates asked, are aging individuals who are not going to commit another crime in prison at the expense of taxpayers? 

“It’s no secret that the cost to incarcerate someone is extremely high,” Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren), the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 322, said in a prepared statement. “Rather than allow this expense to continue to grow as costs rise and force families and friends to be away from each other for extreme periods of time, why not give these individuals the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed so they may return to their community? Saving taxpayer dollars and giving deserving folks a second chance at positively contributing to their community is a win.” 

Prison, advocates said, should be about rehabilitation. As individuals change and grow in the years following their sentencing, they should have the chance to leave prison and build a new life with the families and communities that so often are decimated by incarceration, lawmakers and advocates said. 

“This will take us out of the stone age in Michigan,” said Nixon, who served 16 years in prison before a judge dismissed the charges against him after an investigation found that he failed to receive a fair trial. “It allows people the opportunity to show that they’re different, show they’ve grown.

“We’re dealing with archaic laws that just don’t make sense anymore,” Nixon added.

For Bonnie Zabel, whose son was sentenced to serve 32.5 years in prison when he was 16 years old, the Second Look Sentencing Act would be transformative for families and communities across the state. 

Nine years after her teenage son was sentenced, Zabel can now envision a world in which her son returns home, in which her family is able to heal, in which decades do not pass as her son becomes a middle-aged man who is living his life behind bars while no longer posing a risk to society.

Bonnie Zabel with her son, Brendan, and husband, Jeff, in April 2023. | Courtesy photo

“The biggest word I’d press is hope, not only for our loved ones who are incarcerated but for family members and communities,” said Zabel, who worked with other prison reform advocates to help craft the Second Look bills, is the Northern Michigan regional coordinator for the Nation Outside and serves as the vice president of the Adolescent Redemptive and Restorative Project

Ultimately, advocates said, this legislation is about re-envisioning what criminal justice actually means. It’s about focusing on the ability of people to change, and about a criminal justice system that allows and encourages that to happen. 

“One of the things I’ve seen working with so many people is the impact of these long sentences on families,” Warpehoski said. “When you’re kept away from family members, it hurts the family but it also has generational impacts. That trauma and loss doesn’t stop with the person who’s incarcerated; it continues to cause harm in communities. 

“The ability to offer that chance for redemption, that second look, it’s not just smart in terms of data on public safety…it’s also making sure we’re not punishing families and communities for generations,” Warpehoski continued.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.