Schor: Prosecutor’s gun policy gives a ‘free pass’ to criminals

Mayor signs petition against policy designed to curb racial discrimination

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Amid a historically high spike in gun violence, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is urging Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon to rethink a recent “unwise” policy change that he contends only serves to give people a “free pass” to bring a gun to a crime.

“After speaking with many families of victims of gun violence, I believe that it is unwise for the county prosecutor to have a blanket policy of not charging for felony firearms if there are other crimes as well,” Schor said in an emailed statement this week. “Crimes should be prosecuted based on the evidence collected and presented to the prosecutor. We are seeing an unprecedented amount of gun violence, and I, along with these other leaders in Ingham County, believe that the prosecutor should not give criminals a free pass to bring a gun to a crime.”

That “free pass” is in reference to a seismic policy shift announced by Siemon’s office last month. It dictates that those arrested for crimes that involve firearms will no longer be charged with a separate felony count for possession of a firearm in commission of the crime — except only in “the most extreme circumstances,” according to the policy language.

A conviction on that particular felony charge carries a minimum two-year prison stint and can only be levied as a companion to other (often much more consequential) criminal offenses like burglary or assault. Siemon has labeled the charge “overtly racist,” largely because about 80% of those serving a sentence for that crime in Ingham County are Black.

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth has been the policy’s loudest opponent. He distributed a petition last week through the county’s “non-public alert system” that was signed by 22 mayors, township supervisors and village presidents in Ingham County that called for Siemon to immediately “reconsider” those recent policy decisions.

Schor penned his name at the top of the list.

Lansing mayoral challenger and City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said she was dismayed to see Schor’s name on the recent petition and labeled him a hypocrite for denouncing the changes while also simultaneously trying to mitigate racial discrimination concerns in the city.

She also intends to introduce a City Council resolution in support of Siemon’s latest reforms.

“The premise of the sheriff’s petition is based in fear-mongering, not fact,” Dunbar said. 

She added: “Contrary to its original purpose, studies show that mandatory felony firearm sentencing has not deterred gun violence. What it has done is create huge race disparities in sentencing, resulting in far more Black men incarcerated for longer periods of time.”

In a statement, Schor said he doesn’t necessarily agree with the mandatory minimum sentences outlined in state law, but he said he also doesn’t think Siemon should use her discretion to sidestep the punitive bounds of the statute. Plus, it could send the wrong message to would-be criminals.

“The mayor, like the other 21 elected officials that signed this document, supports fighting against discrimination while reducing gun crime. Black and brown communities bear much of the brunt of gun violence, and their families need to be considered as well,” said Schor’s spokeswoman. “The mayor believes that the law needs to be changed to remove consecutive sentencing and mandatory minimums so situations can be addressed case-by-case, but laws are changed by the legislature. Criminals have now been publicly told by the prosecutor that they can bring a gun to a criminal act, and there will not be a felony firearm charge.”

Siemon, for her part, hasn’t budged. And she doesn’t have any plans to reverse course.

“I’ve read this correspondence and appreciate these views,” she said “At the same time, I have a responsibility to lead the Prosecutor’s Office and have been twice chosen to do so by the people of Ingham County. The policies that we have developed were research-based and we will continue to incorporate ongoing data into the development of future policies. We have developed an ongoing set of reforms — addressing public safety, mass incarceration, and racial equity. I can assure the public we are not going to reverse course on bringing about change.”

Still, Wriggelsworth and the majority of Ingham County’s (mostly white) elected leaders think the changes do not “hold people properly criminally accountable” and boost “likelihood of additional gun violence in the communities we are tasked to govern, serve and protect,” the petition reads.

The theory: Would-be criminals in Lansing could feel empowered to bring guns to a crime, knowing they’ll likely face fewer consequences in Ingham County than elsewhere in the state.

And as gun violence continues to climb locally, Schor said he doesn’t want to take that risk.

Lansing — among other cities nationwide — has tracked a spike in gun violence and homicides over the last two years. The city charted a record-breaking 21 homicides last year, the highest annual total in at least 30 years. Another 21 people have been killed so far this year, including a 17-year-old boy who was shot and later died from his injuries on Monday afternoon.

While those shootings continued this summer, Schor called together a “Gun Violence Task Force” that was composed almost entirely of his own staff and cabinet members. A press release in June detailed plans to “collaborate with community partners to address this violence.”

Siemon said she quickly contacted Schor to offer “considerable gun violence expertise” and encouraged him to expand the group beyond city staff to include assistant prosecutors, activists, gun violence survivors and other community stakeholders. But that offer was left on the table. 

“No one from my office has yet been asked to participate,” Siemon said Monday.

A statement from Schor’s office Tuesday, however, offered a different narrative. 

“Prosecutor Siemon indicated interest in participating in the task force and she is certainly welcome to join. City staff have been in contact with her staff,” Schor’s spokeswoman said.

Despite the pushback from elected officials, Siemon’s policy shift is also hardly a novel concept. Dozens of prosecutors have implemented similar measures to reduce racial disparities. Siemon said last month that fear-based misinformation from local cops simply comes with the territory.

She added: “The ‘free pass’ language is standard for police association and police union responses across the nation, but I have no idea how Mayor Schor came to use the term.”

Miriam Krinsky, the founder of the nationwide nonprofit Fair & Just Prosecution, told City Pulse last month that cops in Greater Lansing will eventually “back down” and recognize the necessity of the prosecutorial reforms. And if not, it won’t matter too much. Only the prosecutor decides whether those arrested for felony charges will actually be charged with them in a courtroom.

“It can feel counterintuitive to rein in any criminal charge that involves a gun. I get that emotional reaction for sure. But this is a race equity issue and does not actually involve public safety and protecting people,” Siemon said. “I just wish people would do their research on this.”

Siemon also emphasized that underlying charges like for robbery or home invasion have not been impacted by the changes. Taking the focus off felony firearm companion charges will allow prosecutors to focus on those more severe charges while also curbing discrimination, she said.

“If this charge didn’t work to deter them before, it’s probably not going to change anything,” Siemon said. “It’s not giving them a free pass. If someone carries a weapon and commits a crime, we’re still going after them. Someone charged with assault — or any charge where we tack on the felony firearm charge — will still be charged with that bigger, underlying offense.”

Illegally carrying a concealed weapon is also a separate criminal charge that will still be pursued, Siemon said. The key difference: Prosecutors don’t plan to tack on another felony charge that carries a mandatory two-year prison term to run consecutively with the initial crime.

“It’s overtly racist. Maybe it wasn’t designed that way, but that’s the impact,” Siemon explained. “We need to develop trust so people are willing to talk to the police and share information. If you don’t trust the police, then you don’t talk to them. If it has been the policy of the police to just stop a lot of Black and brown young men and search their vehicles, allegedly with their consent, then that doesn’t help. The damage is that people don’t see police as providing for their safety.”

Meanwhile, Schor said that officers at the Lansing Police Department will continue to investigate crimes as usual, including sending up felony firearm charge requests for Siemon’s inevitable denial. Wriggelsworth said that his deputies will also keep sending those charges up to Siemon.

“I hope she will review these per situation and make decisions based on evidence,” Schor said in an emailed statement to City Pulse on Monday. “I expect that the prosecutor will review the evidence and consider whether a crime has been committed, and charge accordingly.”

In addition to Schor, the petition’s signatures include mayors and village presidents in Mason, Stockbridge, Leslie, Webberville and Williamston, as well as township supervisors in Lansing, Alaiedon, Aurelius, Bunker Hill, Delhi, Ingham, Leroy, Leslie, Locke, Meridian, Onondaga, Stockbridge, Vevay, Wheatfield and White Oak townships. East Lansing Mayor Jessy Gregg and Williamstown Township Supervisor Wanda Bloomquist did not sign on to the petition.

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