Residents face punishment for helping children board school buses, disposing of spare tires, and raising livestock; state is adding 45 new crimes to the books each year
Michigan’s 918-section criminal code is more than twice the size of Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s — and it’s only growing larger. In the past six years, Michigan has added an average of 45 new crimes to its criminal code each year, about half of which are felonies, according to a study released jointly today by the Manhattan Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy titled “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State: A Primer and Possible Reforms for Michigan.”
James R. Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, said, “Michigan has an overcriminalization problem. We knew that when we selected Michigan to survey first among states in the Midwest, but our research has uncovered just how much Michigan's criminal code is more complex and overreaching in relation to its neighbors."
The code includes several obscure crimes, many of which do not require criminal intent, meaning that individuals can be held criminally responsible for violating laws unknowingly. Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, recently introduced House Bill 5807 to address this problem by establishing a default criminal intent standard for newly enacted crimes.
Without a default criminal intent standard, many Michigan residents still face punishment for unknowingly committing crimes, including:
- Kenneth Schumacher, who disposed of his scrap tires at a facility that appeared to be legal, but was sentenced to 270 days in prison and a $10,000 fine for unlawfully disposing of the tires because the facility didn’t have a license
- Lisa Snyder, who faced charges of operating an illegal daycare because she helped her neighbor’s children board the school bus each morning, free of charge
“With thousands of laws and rules on the books, many people are at risk of being charged with a crime for something most people wouldn't consider inherently wrong,” said Mike Reitz, executive vice president at the Mackinac Center and co-author of the study. “Being prosecuted for breaking one of these laws can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. It is encouraging to see lawmakers start to address the problem of overcriminalization, but the state needs to do more to prune archaic, unnecessary laws from books.”
As it stands, Michigan’s criminal code puts residents in jeopardy of prosecution for unknowing violation of obscure laws and stretches scarce law enforcement resources that could be devoted to prevention and prosecution of serious violent and property crimes. Michigan currently spends one out of every five general fund dollars on corrections.
The study’s authors make three recommendations for policymakers:
- Create a bipartisan legislative task force to further investigate overcriminalization and make recommendations to the Legislature
- Create a commission to review current criminal law with the intent to consolidate and clarify these statutes
- Enact a default mens rea provision, which would require all new criminal laws to meet a minimum standard for establishing intent before a person could be found guilty of a crime
James R. Copland is the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy and oversees the Institute’s corporate-governance website, ProxyMonitor.org.
Isaac Gorodetski is the deputy director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy and the project manager for the Trial Lawyers, Inc. series of publications.
Michael J. Reitz is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.