By Howard T. Spence
Prosecutor Carol Siemon was elected Ingham County Prosecutor by the citizens in November 2016, and she began service in January 2017. She now is approaching the end of her first 100 days. She took over control of The Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from Gretchen Whitmer – who had been the interim Ingham County Prosecutor appointed by the judges of Ingham County for the last several months of 2016 following the resignation of former Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III.
The prosecutor is the chief law enforcement officer at the county level. The office has great discretion to determine who gets involved in the criminal justice system and how they are charged and therefore to a very large degree the prosecutor impacts the type of punishments and case dispositions to which violators are eventually sentenced by the judges.
The Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is a very busy one. It is responsible for prosecuting all the felony crimes and most of the misdemeanor charges which are brought within the city of Lansing and throughout the county.
The office is staffed with 32 assistant prosecuting attorneys, and employs an additional 31 investigators, and other support staff of various types. In the most recent year for which statistics is available, they handled approximately 10,000 cases.
The great majority of criminal complaints and cases are disposed of through plea-bargaining and other methods without having trials.
In addition to criminal case dispositions, the office was involved in approximately 1,000 cases of domestic assault, plus an additional 1,000 cases where family violence issues occurred.
The office also handles paternity actions in cases of child support, but statistics about how many such cases occurred are not available at this time.
SPENCE: How have the assistant prosecutor's and staff reacted to the new leadership which you are bringing? Is the morale of the staff at a good level?
SIEMON: “During the transition and into the first weeks of office, I held one to one meetings with every person on the Prosecutor’s staff. I believe this dialogue has been a crucial element of my tenure. With the exception of a couple of persons who had earned retirement, we kept the staff as it was configured under Prosecutor Whitmer. I believe that we currently have good morale, and we’re working to continue this, while serving the law and the people of Ingham County.”
SPENCE: Have you made any significant policy or procedure changes already, or are you considering any such changes in the prosecutor's office about how criminal cases should be handled that you can share at the present time?
SIEMON: “We are currently developing policies that will impact how we handle the charging of criminal cases, diversion, domestic violence and sexual assault, sentencing, juvenile offenses, and many other areas of the law in which the Prosecutor’s Office plays a role.
In the course of a day, there are many discretionary decisions where past policies are a benchmark, but where the elected Prosecutor has a great deal of impact and latitude. Our system is unique in that it places a great deal of decision-making authority in the hands of one person. It is an honor and a great responsibility; ultimately I believe that I bring a progressive approach to these decisions, and that for one I do not support the use of incarceration simply as a form of retribution. There are times when it is appropriate, for public safety, to require a lengthy sentence for certain violent crimes. However, I do not want to simply add to the problem of mass incarceration that we have seen across the United States.”
SPENCE: In some counties residents there have charged that their prosecutors “over charge” individuals who are arrested and accused of criminal behaviors. Have you taken any actions or made any policy changes that would address the issue or practice of “overcharging” accused defendants?
SIEMON: “I am not aware that the Prosecutor’s Office had any such practice. It would be unethical and grounds for sanction if any prosecutor or assistant prosecutor engaged in such a practice.
I am continuing to explore policies and practices regarding our charging decisions; in particular the use of “habitual offender” designation will be considered. Habitualization can result in greatly enhanced sentences, even in non-violent offenses. It is a question of basic fairness and proportionality, in my view.”
SPENCE: The state legislature has established an Indigent Criminal Defense commission and encouraged counties to provide additional funding for attorneys appointed to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.
Do you have any thoughts or comments to share about your views on the adequacy of criminal indigent defense attorney funding for the accused in Ingham county?
SIEMON: “This is an issue that our judges and county commissioners are currently continuing to work on, subject to available funding. I would certainly hope that the state can do more to fund indigent defense and guarantee fair representation for all.”
SPENCE: A recent national report suggested that the city of Lansing on a national basis ranked as the 16th most dangerous city in the entire country.
Do you agree that the city of Lansing is "that dangerous?"
SIEMON: “I do believe that Lansing, and Ingham County, are safe places to live in most cases. However, we have significant challenges with regard to our crime rate, and we are working to address these. I’ve not seen any evidence that the study was biased or faulty in its methodology.
As a result of state and federal policies, our local communities are flooded with guns, and persons are able to possess these without a proper background check, due to straw buyers and the gun show loophole. It is persons of color who bear the brunt of our nation’s gun violence, as they are disproportionately represented among victims of crime. At the local level, police and prosecutors struggle to pick up the pieces from our patchwork of inadequate gun laws.”
SPENCE: Some critics of the present Michigan criminal justice system complain that government is too quick to criminalize behaviors which really are more of nuisance types of situations. Do you think that there are too many criminal laws on the books in our state?
SIEMON: “I would support the legalization of personal-use possession of marijuana for adults. We review and prosecute any violation of the existing laws, but I believe that for personal-use possession cases, we should find alternatives outside of the traditional criminal justice system. The decriminalization approach that is policy in Lansing and East Lansing (among numerous municipalities in our state) is a favorable alternative, until such time as we have legalization; I believe that day will be soon.
Regarding other criminal laws, I would have to consider each one independently. In most cases of non-violent offenses, I believe these can be handled in a community-based setting – such as a probation or diversion program. There are some offenses that are considered to be non-violent (such as home invasion or gun possession) for which probation is not appropriate.”
SPENCE: One of the major considerations of many prosecutor's offices relates to the impact that criminal behavior has on individuals who are victims of crime. Being targets of crime can be very traumatic and frightening to criminal victims.
What programs and services are available within the Ingham County prosecutor's office to assist victims of crimes? Is there funding available to help compensate victims of crimes?
SIEMON: “We have a Victim’s Rights unit that performs many services on behalf of crime victims, and works to access numerous programs. Our office receives grant funding for domestic violence victim assistance, and we have an MSW on staff who counsels and assists the victim/survivors in these cases.
In general with regard to overall crime victim matters, we pursue restitution and in some cases, there is limited state funding available.”
SPENCE: In the past year there were reports of interagency tensions or frictions between the Ingham County prosecutor's office, some law enforcement agencies, and the courts. Have those reported tensions gone away?
SIEMON: “I think you are always going to have different perspectives in any kind of relationship. Prosecutors, police, and judges each have their own role within the system. The people in these offices each have their own personalities and approaches. And the cases we work on have enormous consequences for our clients. I think you can just expect that we will have discussions, even animated ones, about the right approach in certain cases.”
SPENCE: Here in mid-Michigan the courts have begun to utilize specialty courts for those who have mental illness, substance abuse or alcoholism problems, or who have special situations such as returning veterans have who are experiencing difficulties readjusting back into civilian life.
Does the Ingham County prosecutor's office get involved in the specialty courts? Do you think that these specialty courts are good investments in terms of our tax dollars to deal with criminal behavior in our communities?
SIEMON: “These specialty courts are an enormous resource, and our office participates with all of these. In all too many criminal cases, there are underlying issues that are left unaddressed. Sending an offender to jail or prison doesn’t change those issues.
With specialty courts, you have a real opportunity to change someone’s life for the better, instead of sending them to jail or prison.”
SPENCE: One issue which is being discussed nationally is "civil forfeiture" and confiscation of property of residents by law enforcement agencies – even if those losing property are not prosecuted criminally or convicted.
Is there very much civil forfeiture occurring in Ingham County presently, and does the prosecutor’s office get involved in civil forfeiture proceedings?
SIEMON: “Our office does participate in civil forfeitures and it’s my belief that there are appropriate safeguards. The majority of our civil forfeitures divert money that would otherwise go into the drug trade. I am a liberal and a progressive, and I’m one who doesn’t want a flood of cheap heroin and guns in our neighborhoods. Civil forfeiture provides a means to target drugs and guns, without lengthy prison sentences.”
SPENCE: The prosecutor's office is charged with enforcing all the laws which are enacted.
What are the policies of your prosecutor’s office relating to diversion, probation, prosecuting youthful offenders, and nuisance crimes such as possession for use of marijuana, shop lifting, consensual (non-trafficking) prostitution, etc.?
SIEMON: “Diversion – we have expanded our office’s diversion program and added an additional caseworker. We are developing policies that would expand the eligibility of diversion offenses, and hopefully reduce jail/prison overcrowding and offer a proportionate response to non-violent offenses.
Probation – While the decision to sentence an offender is the responsibility of the judge, the Prosecutor plays an important role in sentencing: Through the charging decision, plea negotiation, and sentencing recommendation, the Prosecutor has a large impact on the sentence that an offender receives. I believe in sentencing reform, especially in cases of non-violent offenses. It is my hope that probation can serve as an effective sanction, although incarceration would still be available as a violation sanction.
Marijuana – My position on marijuana cases is detailed above.
Shoplifting – This offense is diversion-eligible, and with the expansion of our diversion program, I believe that we will continue to provide effective service through non-incarcerative means.
Prostitution – I believe that prostitution is neither a non-violent nor a victimless crime. There is no “Pretty Woman” type of prostitution that exists in our community. It is a sordid offense that is linked to violence and death.”
Printed in the April 2 - April 15, 2017 edition