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Now is the time for criminal justice reform, says state lawmaker at town hall

Panel and audience
Bryce Huffman
Michigan Radio
Panel discussing criminal justice reform in Michigan

Michigan's criminal justice system feeds on the poor – that’s what a state lawmaker in Grand Rapids says.

State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, talked to community members about criminal justice reform at a town hall meeting tonight. He and his fellow panelists described different facets of the system that need changing.

LaGrand says nearly half of Michigan’s jail population is people who can’t afford to pay a modest bail..

“There are people who are in jail right now simply because they couldn’t afford to pay $500 for bail. And this is happening to tens of thousands of people just in the state of Michigan every year,” LaGrand said.

LaGrand is drafting a nine-bill bond reform package that would eliminate cash bail.

Natasha Neal, director of community and student affairs with Grand Rapids Public Schools, was also on the panel. She addressed the idea of restorative justice – or restorative practices.

Restorative practices help prevent kids from becoming criminals by keeping them in school instead of suspending or expelling them. It allows offenders and victims a chance to settle their differences in non-punitive ways.

Neal says these restorative practices give students, teachers and parents tools for solving conflicts and preventing further harm.

“If we equip them with the skills before they have a run in with the criminal justice system, I think we can keep a lot of kids out of the system,” Neal said.

Neal says several Grand Rapids schools already trained their staff in restorative practices. She says lack of funding is a barrier for some schools that would otherwise use these practices.

Fellow panelist Derrick Franke, criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, says reintegration programs are another key to the criminal justice system. He says that process starts once someone enters jail or prison.

“If we wait until someone is two years away from being released before we help them learn how to be a part of the society again, we’re too late,” Franke said.

Franke says it is important for former prisoners to have support when they reenter the community. Without it, Franke says, that person is very likely to return to prison.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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