Democrats: Criminal Justice Reform, or a Social Control Objective

In the 2020 election Democrats highlighted criminal justice and prison reform. These agendas came as the United States faced significant protests over police brutality and rising prison violence. Black Lives Matter was holding protests throughout Detroit. The Macomb prison (in Michigan) experienced 12 unnatural deaths in 2022–in a prison of only 1,200 people. In response, Democrats introduced many prison reform bills, including Second Look Sentencing, Productivity Credits, Ending Juvenile Life Without Parole (Ending JLWOP), and Good Time. For many people, much needed prison reform appeared to be on the horizon. But the actions of Michigan Democrats suggest that they never intended to reach the horizon.

What more could Democrats do to ease public sentiment and prisoner discontent than to promise sweeping reforms? If disgruntled citizens and incarcerated people believed reform was forthcoming, they would no longer need to protest. People in prison had an added incentive to act right: the hope of going home earlier. And this is what occurred. Heightened public scrutiny and prison discontent subsided with the introduction of each additional bill. But prison reform never came, and now we must ask, “Did Democrats want reform or was social control the objective?” To ascertain Democrats’ true intent, we should follow the tried and true legal axion: one’s actus reas speaks for one’s mens rea. These Latin terms say person’s actions speak for their intent. So, what have the Democrats done since introducing prison reform bills?

Governor Gretchen Whitmer commuted the sentence of a 60-year old woman serving a prison sentence for drugs and weapons. This elderly woman, however, would have imminently been paroled without the commutation. Was this action reform or social appeasement? Only two of the four reform bills mentioned committee hearing, and above made it to a none of the bills passed. Democrats would not even pass the Productivity Credit bill, which affords a maximum of two years in incentive time. Apparently, reducing a person’s 50-year sentence by 2 years was too much. Clearly, then, Democrats never intended to pass Second Look Sentencing or Ending JLWOP. Democratic budgets also shed light on their true intent.

Prior to the pandemic Michigan received approximately $5 million a year from the federal government for prisons. During the pandemic, the Democrat budget exploded to $524 million for Michigan prisons. Now that the pandemic is over, the federal government’s 2024 budgets allocate $17 million for Michigan prisons, a 300 percent increase from pre-pandemic budget allocations. As for the 2024 Michigan prison budget, the Democrats proposed $2.5 billion, a $350 million increase!

Democrats never intended to enact prison reform; they simply sought social control. Democrats knew that providing hope for reform would quell the unrest, and they counted on citizens and incarcerated people losing their emotional sentiment before they realized that the prison reform bills were only wishful thinking. And Democrats were right. But being right and getting re-elected are two different stories. As Van Jones recently reported on CNN, many Black voters feel deceived about Democrats’ empty promises for criminal justice and prison reform. And early indicators suggest that many disappointed Black people will vote differently or not at all in the next election.


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