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Across the Country Harsh Sentencing Laws are Tearing Apart Families and Communities

How one single mother lost everything, including her son because of Michigan’s outdated tough on crime sentencing laws.
Nicole Zayas Fortier,
Policy Counsel,
ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice
Kimberly Buddin-Crawford,
Policy Counsel,
ACLU of Michigan
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December 24, 2019

During the holiday season, in the picturesque town of Petoskey, Michigan, Kimiko Uyeda, and her son Marshall celebrate with an annual tradition of selecting a new ornament to add to their tree. Year after year, Kimiko and Marshall add to their collection of ornaments as a part of their tradition.

For years, however, they were separated from one another and unable to enjoy this holiday tradition together. It all began in 2013 when Kimiko was arrested for filing what the local sheriff believed to be a false police report. Because of broken sentencing laws, the prosecutor in the case was able to add four additional criminal charges that would result in Kimiko spending years separated from Marshall.  

Kimiko was not only raising her son at the time but the owner of a building trades company with nine employees. She also managed to run a special needs riding program with 26 horses.

What legal experts say should have resulted in probation, ended with Kimiko facing 20 years behind bars because of outdated sentencing laws that feed Michigan’s mass incarceration crisis.

Though Michigan is a particularly bad actor, states across the country continue to apply outdated sentencing laws that keep people locked behind bars for excessively long times. These laws are implemented despite large bodies of research that show that longer prison sentences ultimately do not make our communities safer.

Decades of “tough on crime” policies have left this country with criminal systems riddled with mandatory minimum sentences, sentence enhancements, and an overuse of life sentences that keep people in prison for decades, if not the rest of their lives. 

In Michigan, a habitual sentencing penalty can increase a sentence by 50 percent for up to 20 years. The law mandates that judges consider decades old, unrelated convictions. The result is that thousands of people like Uyeda stay in prison for far much longer than they otherwise would.

In Kimiko’s case, this meant that filing a single false police report resulted in a multitude of criminal charges, automatically enhancing her sentence to decades behind bars. 

Similar to other unfair sentencing laws across the country, prosecutors in Michigan are able to selectively choose when to seek this additional punishment, meaning that the state’s habitual sentencing penalty is used inconsistently and unequally across the state. In some counties, like Oakland and Saginaw, the penalty is used in 90 percent of cases in which it is eligible, while counties like Washtenaw use the penalty only 10 percent of the time. Across counties, Black people are more likely to be given the penalty than their white counterparts.

“I had no idea how bad the system was until I lived it,” says Kimiko, who served six years behind bars, losing time with her son, who was just 7 years old when she was locked up. “Now, I want to prevent others from going through what I experienced.”

Earlier this year, Kimiko shared her story at an ACLU of Michigan press conference in Lansing to show that sentencing reform will not only save taxpayers’ dollars but also keeps communities safe and families together.

At that same press conference, along with a group of bipartisan lawmakers, we announced plans to overhaul Michigan’s sentencing laws.

Thanks to Kimiko’s help, the Michigan Senate introduced SB 697, SB 698, and SB 699 earlier this month. These bills allow for judicial discretion in cases similar to Kimko’s and limit the use of the punitive habitual sentencing penalty. 

In passing this bill, Michigan will join bipartisan efforts in states across the country, including California and Oklahoma, to dismantle the cruel, expensive, and ineffective sentence enhancements that are used to unjustly and excessively punish people for simply coming into contact with the criminal legal system more than once.

Michigan’s trio of reform bills sets an example for other states, as they would apply to anyone convicted of a crime in Michigan, regardless of what kind of charge they are currently facing.

After losing her home and belongings during the six years that she was incarcerated, Kimiko and Marshall are starting their ornament collection from scratch. This year, they’ll be choosing an ornament together that represents hope. Kimiko is only one of the thousands across this country unjustly locked behind bars due to outdated sentencing laws. Michigan shows us that the fight to reform those deeply entrenched remnants of the tough on crime era can be won.

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