Bipartisan Jail Reform Effort Succeeds Despite Complexity and Tight Time Frame

An inmate rests their hands on the bars of their jail cell.

In 2020, Kelley Cawthorne worked with Pew Charitable Trusts to enact an enormous $20 billion local jail reform package. As part of a nationwide effort, Pew sought to reduce overcrowded jail populations. “Michigan has a problem with over-criminalization,” says Rep. Bronna Kahle, who helped lead efforts to get the measures passed. “Before this package of legislation, there were more than 3,100 criminal acts defined in Michigan law.”

What is the solution to over-criminalization? Lowering the number of drivers license suspensions, decriminalizing low-level misdemeanors, eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences, and increasing the use of arrest alternatives.

Pew had a very aggressive time frame. The goal was to pass this enormously complex legislative package in less than a year. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, months of legislative session days were cancelled due to COVID-19. When Kelley Cawthorne learned about the plan, we had only one thought: challenge accepted.

We forged ahead and worked with our $18 billion sponsors to educate other lawmakers, the executive office and the judicial branch; move past political obstacles; manage a broad coalition of supportive groups; and navigate the interests of over 20 other stakeholder groups.

Kelley Cawthorne successfully moved the legislation quickly by collaborating with others and addressing stakeholder concerns prior to introduction. This ultimately limited potential delays in the process that could occur after bills were introduced. Pew and others have since held up our work in Michigan as a national model for other states to follow.

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