Students give second chance sentencing a closer look and influence a statewide debate

April 23, 2024

Last fall, five Ford School students in the Strategic Public Policy Consulting class launched a research project on a Michigan criminal justice reform bill called the Second Chance Sentencing Act. At the time, no one imagined the students would become enmeshed in a statewide legislative debate.

But, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.

The students—Noah Attal (MPP/MSI ‘25), Julia Blok (MPP ‘ 24), Allison Hanley (MPP ‘24), Maureen Hilton (MPP ‘24), and Kenan Kabbani (MPP ‘24), working with the non-profit group American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—used data from the Michigan Department of Corrections to explain the economic and social benefits of the reform bill. Legislators and their aides were so interested in the data that the students hosted two policy briefings to explain their findings. Ultimately, the students were asked to testify in March at a committee hearing in the Michigan House of Representatives.

“Their research was essential to the committee's understanding of the scope of the problem,” said Michigan Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt), who attended the students’ policy briefing in March.

“I was just amazed and I couldn’t have been happier with the project,” said Associate Dean Jeff Morenoff, the class’s instructor. “These students went above and beyond my expectations—collecting the data, creating a model, and then finding a way to implement it. They are having a real policy impact on an important issue.”

The students worked with Pete Martel, program coordinator at AFSC's Michigan Criminal Justice Program, who himself served 14 years in prison for armed robbery and now works advocating for criminal justice reform.

“The work they did on this was comprehensive,” Martel said. “Because they were able to scrape an entirely new and complete dataset, we had answers to questions we hadn’t even thought of yet. They jumped in, went above and beyond, and got so much great work done.”

Prison sentences by the numbers

Democratic legislators wrote the Second Chance Sentencing Act (SB 321-325, HB 4556-4560) to address a decades-long problem: incarcerated people in Michigan serve the longest sentences in the nation.

In the U.S., 17% of people in prison have served 10 years or more in prison; in Michigan, that number is 32%, according to the student’s report. If passed, the legislation would allow people who have served at least 10 years to petition the judge who tried their case (or the judge’s successor if they are no longer on the bench) to reduce their sentence.

The student’s research helped to quantify how much money the state would save by reducing sentences for long-serving prisoners, and provided data about the likelihood of the formerly incarcerated returning to prison.

“They developed a model that imagined a world where we would start releasing people after they have spent a certain amount of time in prison,” Morenoff explained. “How much money does that save, especially in health care costs for older prisoners, and what is the likelihood they will return to prison?”

The students identified 22 people in Michigan serving life sentences that they received in the 1960s, and 259 people serving sentences they received in the 1970s.

In total, they found there are approximately 5,400 people who would qualify to be released from prison under the proposed legislation. If 50% of them received sentence reductions, the state could save up to $98 million.

The report also cites research showing that people tend to age out of crime as they grow older, which reduces the chance that people released through a Second Chance program would end up back in prison.

“Activists and community members have been calling attention to structural racism and the impact of long sentences for decades,” Hanley said. “The data analysis we presented can help propel the movement in a new way. Once people saw the data, the concept behind the bill didn’t really require an explanation. The data really speaks for itself.”

It’s rare for legislators to have access to such granular details about proposed legislation, explained Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township (BA ’89, MS/JD ’95). "We often don't get this level of research on bills before us,” she said. “The students' presentation increased my understanding of the issue with their careful research and analysis."

Influencing the statewide debate

Most of the students working on the project registered for the consulting classes hoping to work with a large set of data.

Morenoff paired the team with the AFSC because the organization had older data “scraped” from Michigan’s Offender Tracking Information System, which contains information about people in prison, on parole, or on probation in Michigan. Martel imagined that students could use the data to explain the potential impacts of the prison reform bill.

Instead of using the old data, the students were able to use the script that “scraped” the original data to gather new, current data on Michigan’s prisoners. They employed the new data to create a deep dive into the effects the legislation would have throughout the state, including how it would impact judges’ caseload in each county.

The students were motivated to go above and beyond on the project because they knew it would make a difference, said Attal, who is enrolled in a dual degree master’s program with the School of Information. “We knew this analysis wasn’t just going to sit on the shelf, and that kept us motivated to do good work,” he said. “To see something like this have an immediate effect is refreshing and inspiring.”

At the end of the fall semester, the AFSC and the students invited legislative staff members to a private briefing on the analysis, where the students explained the data and collected feedback. “After the first briefing, we realized we wanted to make our report equity-centered, and highlight the racialized disparities in the system,” Hanley explained.

With the class project completed, the students decided to continue working on the project on their own time. “We knew we had the opportunity to make moves here and create consequential research that people in positions of authority would listen to,” Hanley said. “It wasn’t a matter of want to, it was a matter of needing to keep working on it.”

The student team revised their report, and Martel and Morenoff devised a plan to hold another policy briefing in March—this time open to the public. Dozens of legislators, aides, criminal justice advocates, and formerly incarcerated citizens attended.

To the team’s surprise, the Michigan House Criminal Justice Committee scheduled a hearing on the bills for the day after the briefing. Moreoff and Attal both testified in the hearing, sharing information from the student report.

“The hearing room was packed, and it was very emotionally charged,” Moreoff said. “Noah’s testimony really brought evidence to bear on this discussion that has been dominated by emotional and philosophical debate.”

Today, members of the student team are continuing to support the AFSC as they work to move the legislation forward. In addition, the experience has encouraged Morenoff to explore more ways Ford School students can support real-world policy decisions.

“This project inspires me to think about offering more of these engaged learning opportunities,” he said. “There is certainly a need for more evidence and data to support policy decisions throughout Michigan. The Ford School could be instrumental in making this model more widely available to state legislators, city council members, mayors.”


Written by Sheri Hall