Gov. Snyder has the power to grant second chances. He should use it.

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. 

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/18/2017 - 12:58pm

Tell that to the families of their victims moldering in the ground and/or contending with the challenges they have faced for years brought on by the naïveté of youth?

I'm absolutely certain that they will all be sympathetic to this plea.

Ron J Stefanski
Sun, 08/20/2017 - 12:47pm

As someone who has experienced first hand the loss of a cherished family member to murder, I can say without equivocation that we need to re-examine our criminal justice policies in the state. We spend an incredible amount of money on incarceration and the simple question we need to ask ourselves is this: As a community, do we feel safer? In most cases, the answer is no.

When my grandmother was murdered in 1991 by a juvenile, he was given the maximum sentence, 5 years. Over the years I've thought about this a lot. And the truth is, no amount of time would bring her back.

There is a better way. But we need to engage in a community discussion about how to best address our public safety, remove offenders to pay their debts and demonstrate they can live among us. And then focus on the causes of violence and crime that instigate these incidents in the first place.

As a victim, I can assure you, perpetual incarceration doesn't bring peace of mind. It simply raises more questions that we need to dig in and start answering.

Patriot Lawyer
Sun, 08/20/2017 - 11:59pm

Violent criminals deserve no chance for parole or commutation of their sentences. These criminals have already demonstrated they have little to no regard for life or other human beings. The victims of these violent criminals cannot be resurrected for a new life, why should the criminals deserve one? In addition, the recidivism rate for these offenders is extremely high. No person of intelligence, love and true understanding should be willing to sacrifice an innocent person (future victim) for a "chance" that a proven criminal will not rape, rob or kill again. The criminals need to be locked up for life. Period.

Chris Carpenter
Mon, 08/21/2017 - 5:52pm

AS someone who was robbed at gun point two times as a store manager, was shot at and barely missed two other times and someone who had my grand Uncle killed by someone who was early paroled, I think a long sentence of 25 -30 is fair for violent criminals. I will happily pay more taxes to keep them in, not only for the pain / death of the victim but for all suffering and pain they caused to victims families and friends. Anything less than 20 years is disgusting and very unfair. However people who are truly trying to reform their lives could be moved in better prisons with more privileges like a good library and better cells.

Lifelong Victim
Wed, 12/13/2017 - 11:27am

As someone who was robbed in a violent robbery with a gun, my life was changed forever. I cannot shop late at night at stores, fearing armed robbers will come in and rob the store and shoot the customers. Victims of robbery do not receive any money for therapy or any compensation for the lifetime of pain and suffering being robbed caused. Families of people murdered by violent criminals must suffer a lifetime of missing their loved ones. Criminals who commit these acts need to serve 20 years minimum for an armed robbery with no one hurt, 30 years if someone is injured physically but not killed, 40 years if someone is murdered. That is justice. Don't do the crimes if you do not want to serve the time.

Sick of Racial ...
Fri, 09/07/2018 - 10:48am

What SOME people fail to realize though is that JUST 20 SHORT YEARS AGO, Blacks were given MUCH HARSHER SENTENCES than Whites for the SAME CRIMES! Judges had the RIGHT to throw out the RECOMMENDED SENTENCE ACCORDING TO PRE-SENTENCE INTERVIEWS and basically give whatever sentence they Wanted! Why is a Black man MORE DANGEROUS than a white man? If their backgrounds ARE THE SAME? I KNOW FIRST HAND that for 2nd degree murder a White man might serve 7 years, yet a Black man can be sentenced 50-75 years! 2nd degree is NOT PRE-MEDITATED! It does NOT MEAN the person is a MONSTER WHITE OR BLACK! The sentences SHOULD BE ACCORDING TO THE CRIME! NOT THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN! And I AM WHITE! It STILL happens...its just people are MORE AWARE. I don't fear ANYONE that has SERVED THEIR TIME, AND THEN SOME! Yet NEVER broke a rule during their incarceration. Why are taxpayers STILL HOUSING men like that? Men that CAN come home and BE PRODUCTIVE! HAVE SUPPORT SYSTEMS! Maybe if our GOVERNOR DID GRANT COMMUTATIONS it would bring DOWN the prison population!