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Providing Opportunity, Not Punishment: Implementing A Pilot Functional Sentencing Program in Southeast Michigan

The project: Over-criminalization and reliance on retributive punishment have resulted in a criminal justice system that entrenches poverty and harms those on the margins. By shifting the focus to healing, rather than punishment, the criminal justice system can simultaneously address the root causes of offending behavior and improve lives while enhancing public safety. In 2017, Street Democracy, a nonprofit organization located in Detroit, implemented a pilot Functional Sentencing program in the 31st District Court in Hamtramck. In contrast to traditional sentencing, where the focus is on punitive mechanisms such as fines and fees, the Functional Sentencing program attempts to “help an individual permanently exit the criminal justice system by replacing fines and costs with targeted interventions (e.g. job placement and medical services) that address the root causes of an individual’s offense” (Street Democracy, 2018). Through collaboration with the University of Michigan-Dearborn, this project expanded the Functional Sentence program to four misdemeanor courtrooms in Detroit’s 36th District Court.

The process: Thanks to the strength of Street Democracy’s relationships in 36th District Court, three judges agreed to pilot Functional Sentencing in their misdemeanor courtrooms. Members of the research team spent more than 60 hours on courtroom observations while accompanying Street Democracy attorneys to hearings. The researchers then met with Street Democracy and the judges to offer preliminary observations about what’s working and what could be improved in the implementation of the pilot Functional Sentencing program. They also offered advice as to how data could be better collected by the judges, which would allow for better analysis of the impact of the program.

Results: Through their courtroom observations, the researchers learned that judges have relatively broad discretion in how they conduct hearings, how they identify potential participants for the Functional Sentencing program, how they describe the program to potential participants, and whether a functional sentence is given alone or in connection with a court-supervised sentence. This diversity in approaches made it difficult to assess which processes produce the most successful and positive outcomes. Other challenges the pilot encountered were implementing consistent record keeping of functional sentences and getting institutional buy-in, beyond the interest of individual judges in implementing the Functional Sentencing program.

Francine Banner, sociology, UM-Dearborn, Sociology
Jayesh Patel, Street Democracy
Lara Rusch, political science, UM-Dearborn
Jessica Camp, social work, UM-Dearborn
Rachel Buzzeo, behavioral sciences, UM-Dearborn