Natalie Holbrook and D. Korbin Felder work with the American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Program in Ann Arbor.
He didn’t know it, but by the time TJ came home from prison he was already most likely living with cancer. TJ spent over 40 years in prison for a violent crime he committed at just 15 years old. Over those years, TJ transformed and worked toward redemption, ending his prison time with a job of deep responsibility in the Braille unit.
By the time he was released, TJ had mentored and advocated for countless fellow prisoners and tended to his free-world friendships with care and gentleness. Returning home, he was a college student, partner, intern, friend and neighbor. Just over two years after getting out, TJ died on his birthday, surrounded by his congregation in an Ann Arbor hospital room.
We know that the idea of releasing people convicted of serious offenses such as murder and assault elicits significant fear among the public. However, in a recent New York Times op-ed Marc Howard argues that people who have committed violent crimes need to be afforded the opportunity for release and that the U.S. must turn toward other models of justice to truly attend to our excessive and exceptional punishment system. This argument echoes the mounting evidence and growing public sentiment that if we are truly going to end mass imprisonment in this country, we have to focus on our failed over-punishment policies for violence in our communities and provide meaningful remedies.
We believe Michigan is well-positioned to do just this.
Over 25 percent of Michigan’s prisoners are those serving life or long, indeterminate sentences. For these 11,000 prisoners, their only hope for relief comes from the commutation powers of the governor or parole board making a concerted effort to release more inmates like them.
Unfortunately, Gov. Snyder has only granted five commutations during his tenure. All were severe medical cases.
We are convinced that it doesn’t have to stay this way. Snyder and the parole board have the opportunity to grant more commutations and paroles to people serving the longest sentences. Snyder and the board have the opportunity to listen to the preponderance of survivors of violence, who do not seek perpetual punishment. Creating pathways to freedom for many of these 11,000 prisoners makes sense morally, economically and practically.
In a state where almost a quarter of the prisoners have little hope of returning to the community, it’s no surprise that the annual corrections budget exceeds $2 billion. The average annual cost per prisoner is more than $35,000, and this expense only increases as those prisoners become elderly and ill inside. To truly address mass incarceration, we must focus on the hardest cases, the realities of harm in communities, and the failure of mass punishment. We must envision the type of society that we want to live in – one that takes harm and violence seriously enough to address its root causes, rather than investing in failed policies that exacerbate cycles of violence.
It is people like TJ – those who have done the hard and transformative work of owning their harmful and violent actions, understanding their own traumatic histories, and intervening in these cycles of violence in their own lives and those of their fellow prisoners – who deserve a real chance at returning home. At AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, we hear from over 2,000 prisoners every year through correspondence; work inside prisons to ready prisoners for parole; and walk alongside prisoners on their own transformative journeys of accountability and healing. We know there are thousands of other TJs.
We can’t hear from TJ now, but we can listen to others most intimately familiar with the issue – those who themselves lived many years in prison. AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program has produced a powerful short video “Changing the Narrative: The Case for Commutations in Michigan,” where anyone can hear directly from those who have served long time, worked hard on themselves, and have been given the opportunity to come home again.
We hope that Gov. Snyder and the parole board take the time to listen to these stories, and give people behind bars meaningful opportunities to come home.