Nessel talks ‘constitutional counties,’ gun violence and juvenile justice reform

By: - June 5, 2023 6:00 am

Attorney General Dana Nessel participates in an interview with the Michigan Advance during the Mackinac Policy Conference on May 31, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Michigan Advance she is working to ensure gun violence laws can withstand legal scrutiny and are properly enforced.

With Democrats taking control of the House and Senate and maintaining the governorship after the 2022 election, the Legislature has passed multiple Democratic priorities, including measures requiring background checks for all gun sales in Michigan, safe gun and ammunition storage requirements, and extreme risk protection order laws, otherwise known as “red flag” laws

However, some Michigan GOP county governments and officials have challenged these laws, saying they will not enforce laws they deem unconstitutional.

The Advance asked Nessel in an interview Wednesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference about these efforts and whether she could see her office stepping in on the issue. Nessel said her plan is to work to educate as many people as possible, including law enforcement, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates and the public at large on how to use these laws, and to make sure that if a sheriff’s department or municipal police department does not enforce these laws, that there is someone with jurisdiction who will. 

“That’s my plan. Put together a task force, working with Michigan State Police, working with some of our federal partners, to make sure that we’re always in a position that there is someone with proper jurisdiction that will execute that [extreme risk protection] order,” Nessel said.

“You can believe in the Second Amendment all day long and be a strong advocate for it, but still know and understand that these laws meet the threshold of constitutionality under the Second Amendment,” Nessel said. 

In addition to ensuring Michigan’s new gun violence laws stand up to scrutiny and are enforced, Nessel has advocated for federal restrictions banning handgun sales to individuals under 21 and worked to regulate “ghost guns” or unserialized weapons that can be put together from weapons parts kits.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, MEA President Paula Herbart, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin at a rally with former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords in support of gun safety legislation on March 15, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

The Advance asked Nessel if there are any additional policies she would recommend to her colleagues in the Legislature to prevent gun violence. Nessel said banning ghost guns was at the top of her list.

“These are weapons that anyone can manufacture in their basement, right? Anybody who has access to a 3D printer, no serial numbers, no registry of any kind. And they can go through metal detectors, many of them. So this is a recipe for disaster and that’s why a greater and greater proportion of ghost guns are being used in these homicides that we’re seeing in counties all around the state,” Nessel said. 

“Law enforcement hates ghost guns, right? And, to me, this should be an idea that’s incredibly popular with the public,” Nessel said.

The Advance also asked Nessel what the Legislature could do to support the Department of the Attorney General in its efforts to enforce environmental regulations and hold polluters accountable. Nessel said the Legislature could ensure the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture division is fully funded, and said she wholeheartedly supported polluter pay efforts to ensure companies who do business in Michigan are good stewards of the environment. 

“We’re always looking for new and better opportunities in order to have proper enforcement [of environmental regulations]. And you know, sometimes that’s increasing penalties too. Because what you never want to see is a company who makes the calculus to pollute the environment because financially it’s affordable and beneficial for them to do so,” Nessel said.

In a webinar held earlier this year, House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) listed polluter pay among Michigan House Democrats’ environmental priorities for this term.

The Advance also asked the attorney general her thoughts on recent legislative efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, including abolishing juvenile life without parole. Nessel said it’s important to treat juveniles in custody properly and appropriately and to provide them with resources to one day become law-abiding citizens. She also spoke in support of ensuring youths have access to mental health services saying it was the biggest cure for juvenile crime she could think of. 

Nessel has supported criminal justice reforms, including the state’s ‘Clean Slate’ program, and introduced her job court program in Genesee, Wayne and Marquette counties. However, there are other types of reforms on the table that Nessel said are not victim-centered enough.

“I believe in truth-in-sentencing, so it is important that you don’t lie to victims about how much time their assailant is going to get,” Nessel said.

Nessel said she opposes productivity credits, which would allow some incarcerated individuals to earn up to 20% off their minimum sentence by participating in educational, vocational or other rehabilitative programs. The bills are currently being debated in a House committee with some Republicans opposing them.

“I don’t want a situation where you’re telling a victim that a person will serve a certain amount of time, and then it turns out to be significantly less than that,” Nessel said.

“The criminal justice system should revolve first and foremost around the victim and assisting victims to make sure that they get back to a place where they feel whole, but there are ways that we can do that and still ensure that. you know, criminal defendants have opportunities at success later on in life so that they’re not re-victimizing, they’re not reoffending and they, you know, can make the most of programming that is available.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel participates in an interview with the Michigan Advance during the Mackinac Policy Conference on May 31, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: I know that there has been another proposal put out that would allow municipalities to create gun-free zones. If this policy were to move forward, do you expect that you could see yourself working to make sure that this policy can be implemented within the state by municipalities that choose to create these gun-free zones?

Nessel: I mean, we’ve already seen that. We were supportive of the University of Michigan in their effort to create and maintain a gun-free zone. To me, because you have a situation where guns come from so many different places in so many different fashions. There are so many tools out there that are available. I’m willing to consider partnerships with you know, whoever asked in terms of addressing additional measures in order to address this epidemic of gun violence. 

As you hear over and over again, we don’t have to live like this. And we didn’t used to live like this. …What we’ve tried to provide to the Legislature and I’ve made this well known to Speaker [Joe] Tate (D-Detroit), made it well known to [Senate] Majority Leader [Winnie] Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) that to use us as a resource in terms of providing legal assistance in any way we can. Because we want to make sure not just that we have the right laws put in place that will prevent gun violence, but also that they withstand judicial scrutiny.

Michigan Advance: Have you had any further communications with the Michigan State University Board of Trustees regarding releasing the [former gymnastics doctor Larry] Nassar documents?

Nessel: Nope, the last communications that I’m aware of came before that last board meeting, where we were led to believe that they actually were going to release the 6,000-plus emails. And let it be noted, they came to us, not the other way around. 

You know, I had closed that case. In criminal law, we call it closing a case without improvement, which is where you don’t satisfactorily close the investigation, but there’s nothing more that you can do. And that was our decision, we had done everything we had taken the case to court. We had a judge say this is attorney-client privilege, which again, if you don’t want us to look at all of the evidence in the case, don’t ask us to do an investigation — which is exactly what happened. 

But we were led to believe that this new iteration of the board was going to release those emails which we have long sought, only to find out later that that was not, in fact, true. Now I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if [MSU Board Chair] Dr. [Rema] Vassar thought she had the votes and then turned out not to have the votes. I don’t know what happened. I mean, it’s the right thing for them to do to release those emails and to allow us at long last to complete this investigation.

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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson covers state government alongside health care, business and the environment. A graduate of Michigan State University, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He previously covered community events, breaking news, state policy and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.

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