Michigan needs 'Second Look' legislation, I'm just one example of why

I am a mother. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I am a renowned international artist. And along with countless others, I'm serving life without parole because of Michigan’s inhumane sentencing laws.

Susan Brown
Susan Brown

The story of how I got here is deeply painful. Years ago I was married to a man who was mercilessly verbally and mentally abusive to me and my children. I wanted to press through the anguish to keep our family together, but then his behavior escalated. I had no choice but to leave to protect our child.

A year later, I had moved on and was 30 weeks pregnant with another man's child. My estranged husband was enraged and, in a volatile verbal exchange, stabbed me in my stomach. He then raped me. I fought back to defend myself. In a blur, I ended up in the hospital, with my child devastatingly born prematurely. I then learned that, while it was never my intention, my ex-husband died.

My first trial ended in a mistrial. Then, in a second trial that included vastly altered testimony, contradictory witnesses and denial of defense witnesses, I was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

In prison, I have learned to heal my pain, manage conflict and improve my thinking processes. I also now understand how important communicating my needs are — and I've found I am worthy of speaking my truth. I have done everything possible to be better than who I entered prison as. It is my merciful plea that I have an opportunity to return to society. I hope to show my transformation as an accomplished commissioned artist, mother and daughter.

Unfortunately, Michigan's criminal legal system is incredibly abusive. By law, judges are required to hand out extreme sentences for certain crimes. And there is no chance to reconsider and change those sentences over time. As a result, one-in-seven incarcerated people in the state are serving a life sentence. Many of these people are fellow mothers and survivors.

A large number of incarcerated people are paying for mistakes made at an incredibly young age. Indeed, roughly 40 percent of incarcerated Michiganders were under 26 years old at the time of their offense. That's despite an abundance of research that shows the human brain is not fully developed until age 25.

Our prisons are also full of older people who bear no risk to public safety. Indeed, nearly four in ten of the people serving life in Michigan are 55 or older — one of the highest rates in the entire country.

State legislators need to give people — many of whom have experienced unthinkable trauma — a chance at the freedom and healing we all deserve as human beings. Fortunately, some lawmakers — like Sens. Jeff Irwin, Stephanie Chang and Erika Geiss — have advocated for "Second Look" legislation. Second Look allows the courts to reevaluate incarcerated people's sentences after they have served a certain amount of time in prison, providing an opportunity for another chance. It's gaining momentum nationwide. Michigan should be next in line.

Let me be clear: Our current criminal justice system is anything but just. I had to endure and try to comprehend a system that did not allow me to share the entirety of my story, let alone present any evidence of the abuse I survived. I was a mother with postpartum depression attempting to work through frustration, fear and crushing emotions to fight against my presumed guilt. Put simply, that is not what justice looks like. Like so many others, I was railroaded by a broken, antiquated criminal justice system that should be helping people like me.

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In prison, I have found my purpose in creating an unusual kind of art. I take materials most view as insignificant, useless and discarded ... and transform them into unique forms of beauty. For me, the practice is deeply spiritual and symbolic. Just as these supposedly insignificant, useless and discarded materials can be shaped into something beautiful, so too should incarcerated people have a chance to reform their lives.

Before prison, I never had any negative interaction with law enforcement. I was a positive light in my community, just as I strive to be behind the barbed wire. I volunteer, mentor young people and assist the elderly. Before the pandemic, I facilitated communication, conflict resolution and mediation groups. I do my best to be available to anyone in need. I believe these are attributes that will yield even greater if given the opportunity.

We can't afford to be complacent about outdated harmful sentencing laws. We're simply asking for dignity and humanity. Give us a second chance.

Susan Brown is an artist and has been incarcerated at Women Huron Valley Facility since 2003.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan's current criminal justice system is anything but just