Few issues kindle public passions more than questions of crime and punishment, of justice for the victims of crime and of mercy for those who commit them. Thus it comes as no surprise that a volcano of controversy erupted in the wake of Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon’s recent disclosure that she intends to review the cases of individuals convicted of first-degree murder in the 1970s and 1980s to determine if they should be recommended for commutation of their life without parole sentences.
As the public backlash intensified, Siemon quickly backtracked, at least in part, expressing regret — as well she should have — that she had “prematurely” discussed her views on the matter and apologizing to families who were alarmed by her plan to review old murder convictions. She didn’t, however, back away from the core tenets of her commutation strategy, noting only that her statements were untimely because she didn’t have the opportunity to deploy trained professionals to break the news to family members involved in specific cases and seek their input.
Siemon correctly points out that she doesn’t have the authority to commute anyone’s sentence, that power being reserved to the governor on the advice of the state parole board. Even so, her strong predilection for showing mercy even to convicted murderers sent shock waves through the hearts of those who have lost loved ones at the hands of violent criminals.
We understand the negative reaction of grieving family members and would never suggest that they simply set aside their anguish and find a path to forgiveness. We are reminded of the old adage that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” We interpret this to mean that forgiveness can only be reached through a dialogue with one’s deeply held personal or religious beliefs, without coercion, or not at all.
We also agree with Siemon that there is a time and place for careful consideration of commutations for certain individuals. We share the prosecutor’s belief in the possibility of rehabilitation and in the mercy of second chances, yet we also believe that the extraordinary step of commuting a life without parole sentence handed down through our system of criminal justice — flawed as it is — should be reserved only for the most meritorious cases. We trust she will be judicious in making her decisions and show greater sensitivity to the concerns of impacted families going forward. We also hope that Siemon will focus some of her passion and energy on commuting the sentences of those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.
We remain concerned, though, that Siemon is exercising her prosecutorial discretion to do an end run around the state law that mandates life without parole for those convicted of first-degree murder. We have no issue with her public support for sentencing reforms that could modify the future application of LWOP sentences. She certainly is free to join like-minded prosecutors and advocates in an effort to persuade the governor and state legislature to make changes in the law.
But her apparent blanket policy of offering plea bargains in even the most heinous criminal cases in order to sidestep a potential life without parole sentence goes too far. When Siemon took the oath of office, she swore to uphold the laws of the state. Her plea bargain policy crosses the line by purposefully undermining the force and intent of Michigan’s LWOP statute.
Offering a defendant the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge should be based on the mitigating factors of each case, not an all-purpose vehicle for protesting a state law she believes to be unjust. Had Siemon been prosecuting attorney during the murderous rampage of convicted serial killer Matthew Macon, would she have allowed an incorrigible psychopath who viciously murdered five women to plead guilty to a lesser offense to prevent him from being sent to prison for the rest of his life with no chance for parole? We certainly hope not.
Given the high degree of public concern Siemon has provoked with her plan, she might consider creating a community-based process for commutation case reviews. A public advisory panel could be established with members that include victim advocates, a criminal psychologist, at-large citizens who represent the diversity of the community, and other stakeholders. The group could be tasked with considering requests for commutation by balancing questions of fairness and justice with concerns for community safety and the impact on crime victims and their families presented by each case. The panel would then forward their recommendations to the prosecuting attorney.
It is possible, if not likely, that Siemon has ruffled enough feathers to inspire one or more opponents to challenge her in the November election. We would be disappointed if a “tough on crime” candidate tried to unseat her by ginning up public fears that Siemon intends to flood the streets with convicted murderers. Clearly that’s not her intent, and we don’t think she should be turned out of office based on her belief in the possibility of rehabilitation, so long as she is exceedingly cautious in reviewing cases and developing her recommendations for commutation. We would be more comfortable if she also reconsidered her one-size-fits-all approach to plea bargains in LWOP cases and we encourage her to do so.
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