By Richard Stapleton/Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending
Ultimately, the least expensive prisoner is one who isn’t there. While the prison population has dropped by about 8,000 over the last five years, the Michigan Department of Corrections' projections anticipate no further decline. But the projections assume the status quo on policies.
Those assumptions can be changed.
One big step would be to adopt “presumptive parole," a statutory requirement that people who have good institutional records and are not currently dangerous be paroled when they have served their minimum sentences. The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending estimates the annual cost savings would be $236 million.
The size of the prisoner population depends on how many people go to prison and how long they stay. In 2005, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that, for the period from 1990-2005, Michigan’s average length of stay was 16 months longer than the average of other Great Lakesstates. In 2009, the Council of State Governments explained that Michigan prisoners stay longer because our parole board has uniquely broad discretion.
In most cases, Michigan courts impose a minimum sentence while a statute sets the maximum. The parole board cannot release someone before the minimum expires, but it can keep the person until the maximum -- for any reason it chooses.
Parole guidelines measure a person’s risk of reoffending. When someone scores “high probability of release” on those guidelines, the parole board is not supposed to deny release without “substantial and compelling reasons.” Yet even people with favorable parole scores are routinely kept for an extra year or two or, in many cases, much longer.
Today, nearly 5,500 people have served their minimums and never been granted a parole. Within that group, 1,555 (29 percent) scored high probability of release on the parole guidelines. They were, on average, 2.6 years past their first release date. Another 2,576 (47 percent) scored average probability of release and were 2.8 years past their earliest release date.
Another 550 prisoners have been granted a parole, but not been released. This group is evenly divided between people with high and average parole guidelines scores. On average, they are 1.3 years beyond their first release date.
Research shows there is no relationship between sheer length of time served and success on release. Research also shows that incarcerating people for an additional year or two after they have served their minimum has very little impact on success rates. When thousands of people routinely serve an extra 12, 24 or 36 months, the costs are huge, while the benefits are very small.
Presumptive parole would change the statutory standard so the parole board must grant parole to someone who has served the minimum sentence unless the person has a serious history of institutional misconduct or there is objective, verifiable evidence that the person poses a current threat to the community. Such evidence might be scoring as high risk on a validated assessment instrument or something unique to the person, such as threatening the victim.
Presumptive parole has advantages beyond saving money. It would give real meaning to the minimum sentence, which has been imposed by a judge in accordance with legislative sentencing guidelines. Yet it would preserve the parole board’s role in identifying people who are truly too dangerous to release.
By conditionally guaranteeing release after an appropriate term of punishment, presumptive parole would create transparency and certainty for both defendants and victims. It is the ultimate form of truth in sentencing.
Presumptive parole would help depoliticize the parole process. Despite public pressure, the board could rely on its mandate to reach a certain outcome unless specified criteria are met.
Presumptive parole would not conflict with current laws on “truth in sentencing.” Because it just involves enforcing existing minimum sentences, not changing them in any way, it can begin having an effect immediately.