Michigan prosecutor tries to address racial disparities


(NewsNation) — A Michigan prosecutor says she’s trying to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system by giving more scrutiny to charges issued during traffic stops.

Data compiled by the office of Carol Siemon, prosecutor for Ingham County, and the Vera Institute of Justice showed that Black people were 5.6 times more likely to be charged, according to the Lansing State Journal.

In 2019, the Lansing State Journal said, 50% of the felonies filed in the county were against Black people, while 41% were against white people, although white people made up more misdemeanors.

While Black people are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, the research found, they are no more likely than white people to have contraband on them.

When Siemon was was elected prosecutor in 2016, she knew she wanted to make some changes.

“I came back knowing that I wanted to work on certain issues,” Siemon said on NewsNation’s “Morning in America.”

To do this, she enacted a policy of “heightened scrutiny” of traffic stops that don’t have to do with public safety.

“That came out of the many, many situations we see nationally where people on relatively innocuous things like driving with one taillight out, or a minor, non-public safety kind of infraction end up sometimes injured or dead,” she said.

After working with the Vera Institute of Justice and other prosecutors across the nation, Siemon decided her office would stop charging people for drugs, guns or other illegal weapons found by police during non-public safety traffic stops, according to The Detroit News.

Non-public safety traffic stops, per the policy, are defined as stops for tinted windows, expired registration, a “single defective tail light” or some defective equipment infractions, the newspaper reported.

“It’s not that we’re saying we’ll unilaterally not issue — we’ve never made a policy like that,” Siemon said.

Siemon has gotten some criticism for her policy decisions. Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth told The Detroit News in 2021 that “she doesn’t want to do her job.”

“If we stop someone with an illegal gun, and the prosecutor refuses to issue charges, that’s another criminal with a gun being released into the community,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how that’s good for the community.”

Another policy that got a lot of pushback was one addressing felony firearm charges.

“I think it’s because people, frankly, didn’t understand it,” Siemon said.

In 1976, Michigan passed a law that if someone has a legal or illegal gun in their possession while committing another felony, they get a mandatory two-year prison sentence. Siemon’s policy is to charge people for their actual behavior while committing a crime, the Lansing State Journal said — not the unused weapon.

“That is the policy, I think, that people are most referring to when they’re saying we’re not prosecuting gun cases,” Siemon said. “We are prosecuting gun cases.”

Two attorneys in her office are responsible for dealing with shootings, she added, and they are also working with an organization called Advance Peace on violence interruption.

“We’re absolutely addressing gun violence,” Siemon said. “It’s just that there’s always a pushback when you try to do change.”

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