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U-M researchers to examine Michigan’s approach to criminal justice reform

Daniel Rivkin,
Jeff Karoub,

ANN ARBOR—In the wake of racial justice movements across the country, the state of Michigan and some of its communities have been implementing new public safety and criminal justice policies.

The perspective of Michigan’s local government, public safety and prosecutorial officials on factors associated with openness to, and adoption of, racial justice and other public safety policies, as well as insights on police-community relations in local communities, will be the focus of a new two-year study being by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) and Poverty Solutions.

The effort, funded by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, will gather those perspectives through a set of surveys of local government leaders, chiefs of police and sheriffs, and prosecuting attorneys across Michigan. The multipronged project will be based on CLOSUP’s long-standing Michigan Public Policy Survey of local government leaders, which has been conducted since 2009 and comprises the leaders of 1,856 counties, cities, townships and villages across the state.

“Real change will require support from front line local officials and other community-level actors,” said Tom Ivacko, CLOSUP executive director. “How much and where is the political will to embrace or enact change? What barriers to change exist in which kinds of communities? These are the questions we will be probing.

“We look forward to addressing issues like police-community relations, inequitable policing and criminal justice practices, and exploring the potential for cooperation on reform among various local political actors

The project’s data collection will consist of three parallel surveys: one for all the top elected and appointed local government leaders; one for top public safety officers in local law enforcement agencies; and another of county prosecutors. The Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPSS) previously asked about local policing in its 2015 survey wave.

“The Joyce Foundation is supporting this effort because we believe it will surface critical answers to important questions about the future of public safety in Michigan and help shape a way forward for advocates, community groups, researchers and policymakers to address the public safety challenges ahead,” said Quintin Williams, program officer for Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform at the Joyce Foundation.

Mara Ostfeld, a CLOSUP faculty affiliate and research director of the Center for Racial Justice, said the project will provide critical insights into the political opportunities and challenges that different reforms may face, and allow for a more informed strategy to building stronger police-community relations.

“While the data gathered are specific to Michigan, the lessons will be valuable across the region and the U.S., as Michigan serves as a national microcosm with a wide range of communities: wealthy and low-income, urban and rural, racially homogeneous and heterogeneous, and more,” she said.

While the project will gather opinions and perspectives of key actors along the public safety and criminal justice continuum, it seeks engagement with stakeholders of all kinds.

“We will consult widely with community and state-level reform advocates, state and local officials, academic researchers, and others, during the planning phases to ensure the survey designs are based on broad and diverse input,” said Debra Horner, MPPS senior program manager. “We believe the insights provided by local leaders and public safety officials will help sharpen understanding of what kinds of reform may be possible in what community contexts.”

The outputs of the two-year effort will be targeted to inform a wide range of stakeholders, including the general public and the media, but especially Michigan local government leaders themselves, including the survey respondents, state and federal policymakers, leaders of public safety agencies, county prosecutors, nonprofit advocacy organizations, students, researchers and others interested in criminal justice and related issues.

The project will produce a series of rich datasets, analyses, reports, infographics, web-based data resources, social media outreach, mass media coverage, and presentations to inform key stakeholders about current issues in local policing and criminal justice and opportunities for reform. It will also provide robust survey questionnaires for future use in assessing change over time.