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Ingham County Prosecutor Pledges To Dial Back Use Of Mandatory Minimum Gun Charge

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Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon says her office intends to counter racial inequities by dialing back how often it uses a certain gun possession charge.

Under Michigan law, being convicted with felony possession of a firearm results in a mandatory minimum sentence of two years. Prosecutors can tack on the offense if someone has a gun with them when they commit or attempt to commit a felony.

The law, adopted in 1976, was intended to deter people from carrying guns, Siemon said.

"There was actually a public service campaign that said, you know, 'carry one, do two' and that if you carry a gun, you're going to just automatically do two years in prison," Siemon said. "We've learned, of course, that deterrence is not a very strong motivator, unfortunately."

Siemon says the penalty hasn't made the public safer since prosecutors can add the charge even if the gun was legally owned or if the gun wasn't used in the underlying felony for which someone was arrested. Instead, she says, the charge is a major driver of racial disparities in incarceration.

Black people make up 12% of Ingham County’s population, but they accounted for 67% of those charged with felony firearm possession in the county last year, according to a news release from the prosecutor's office.

More than 80% of the people serving time in Michigan on felony firearm charges are Black, according to a recent report from Safe & Just Michigan, a nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration.

Although Siemon can't stop police from arresting people for firearm possession, she says her office will be more limited in approving the charge.

Any use of the charge will need to be OK'd by Siemon herself or the county's chief assistant prosecutor, according to a new policy announced Tuesday.

Siemon says she'll limit approval of the charge to "extreme circumstances," such as when other charges are too difficult to prove because witnesses aren't cooperating. She says her office can continue to charge people with an underlying felony and with charges like carrying an unlicensed concealed weapon.

The policy is the latest in a series of criminal justice reforms announced by Siemon. The elected prosecutor met pushback last month from Ingham County's sheriff and local police chiefs when she announced her office would stop charging people for "non-public safety-related" infractions, like busted taillights, that result from traffic stops.

Siemon acknowledged Tuesday that her latest announcement could draw criticism, as well. Mandatory minimums, she said, can be appealing to cops and prosecutors who use the threat of a sentence to negotiate.

"It's very difficult for systems to change," she said.

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
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