LANSING, Mich. — Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon said, when she was elected in 2016, one of her main goals was to reduce systemic racial bias and racial disparities from law enforcement, but not everyone supports the policies she's put in place to do that.
“I was raised here in Lansing, in a diverse community,” Siemon said. “I’ve always had an interest in civil rights, all aspects of civil rights. As a woman, I’ve been a feminist all my life. LGBTQ Rights, racial disproportionality, immigrants rights. So, when I was elected as prosecutor, my goal was to try and create a more criminal and equitable legal system.”
In the past month, Siemon has pushed out two policies meant to decrease the number of Black people behind bars.
Currently, Black people make up 14 percent of Michigan’s population and 53 percent of the prisoners in the state.
“We look at the data and that statistic shows that racial disparity is so unambiguous and so extreme that I couldn’t even justify,” she said.
Last week, she said she was changing the way her office deals with the felony firearm charge.
Michigan created the felony firearm charge in 1976 when there was a rise in the state’s gun violence.
“It was designed to say if you carry a gun you’re going to get two charges,” Siemon said. “That’s an additional two years in prison if convicted of a felony firearm, even if it's a gun you’re legally able to have and if you don’t use the gun while committing the felony.”
Siemon said she's only going to charge people for their actual behavior while committing a crime, not for a weapon that wasn’t used in the crime.
In 2020, the prosecutor’s office received 205 felony firearm charges, and a significant number of those suspects were Black.
"In Michigan, about 80 percent of people who are incarcerated on a felony firearm charge are Black, even though our statewide population for that race is only 14 percent,” Siemon said. “
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Siemon has "reached out to people who actually understand what’s going on out here in the streets and I just commend her for listening,” said community activist Michael Lynn Jr. “It makes me feel like progress is happening.”
Lynn runs the Advocates CPL business on Lansing’s south side. As a person who provides free CPL classes to young people in Lansing, Lynn said both policies will be beneficial for those young people who have made a mistake.
“Young people are being pulled over for minor traffic stops and they’re finding felony firearms In their cars, and these young people are just trying to protect themselves from the very streets we understand are dangerous,” Lynn said.
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth sees the issue differently.
“I think the vast majority of the community feels that this is the wrong thing to do and it’s not time for experiments,” he said
Wrigglesworth said he’s not happy how Siemon went about introducing these policies. He said the sheriff’s office was not included and communication between his office and the prosecutor’s office was not the best.
"The first policies she involved us to a minimum,” he said. “The most recent policy, she put it out and we didn’t see it until the public got to saw it.”
Wrigglesworth believes racial disparities do exist in law enforcement and he also believes the statistics involving Black people in prison but said his top priority is protecting the community and thinks these new policies will get in the way of that.
“Will this policy have an impact in sending less people of color to prison? I think that’s probably true,” Wrigglesworth said. “But, on the other hand, at what cost? Possibly a human life. So for her to start making personal changes because of her own personal agenda or what someone told her to do doesn’t make sense. We need to start focusing on what’s happening here in Ingham County and not across the country.”
Stanford University Law School Professor David Slansky has studied criminal activity and criminal law for more than two decades. He was also a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. He said the push to break down racial disparities in law enforcement is becoming more common among prosecutors across the country.
“Starting around 10 years ago, prosecutors began to win elections around the country, based on promises to make the system more balanced and reduce racial disparities and to decrease unnecessary harshness in the system,” he said. “I think a number of things have driven this trend. One is all the attention about race that stemmed from the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Siemon said she's hopeful that she'll be able to work through disagreements with local police,
Wriggelsworth said, on these policies, the disagreements run deep.
“I don’t agree with it at all and I think most police chiefs won’t agree with it.,” Wrigglesworth said.