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Guest column: Parolable lifers are safe to release; expensive to keep

By Paul D. Reingold/University of Michigan Law School

In the public debate over how to save money in corrections, one group is consistently overlooked -- the roughly 850 “parolable lifers” who are eligible for release. Paroling just half of them could save about $16 million a year.

And the risk to the public would be almost zero.

In Michigan, serious offenses short of first-degree murder are punishable by parolable life or a term of years -- whichever the sentencing judge chooses. By statute, parolable lifers have to serve a minimum of either 10 or 15 years, depending on when they committed the crime. 

As a practical matter, for decades lifers who behaved well in prison would be released in about 15 years. Judges, Michigan Department of Corrections administrators and parole board members expected lifers to be evaluated just like people who committed similar crimes, but received sentences of 15-30 or 20-40 years. As Frank Buchko, a parole board member from 1962-1974, said:  “The fact that someone was a lifer ... had no bearing on the case. The only question was whether or not the person would be a threat to society if released.”   

Parole policies changed dramatically in 1992, after the board changed from civil service to political appointees. From 1992 to 2005, the board followed the mantra that “life means life.” It released almost no lifers.

Michigan parole rates 1990-2011

Then its policies loosened up some. Since mid-2005, the board has released 101 parolable lifers (not counting lifers imprisoned for drug crimes). Of the 101 paroled, just two have been returned to prison for technical violations, and one has been returned for committing retail fraud. This recidivism rate of 3 percent is consistent with the historical data. 

Parole-eligible lifers tend to share a number of characteristics.

They are much older than the average prisoner. Although nearly 100 were younger than 18 when they committed their offenses, and more than 200 were under 21, their median age is now around 55. The 700 or so who became eligible for parole after 10 years (because of the date when they committed their crime) have now served, on average, about 30 years.

The parolable lifers are not “the worst of the worst.”  Although their crimes were serious, many were situational. About half the lifers are serving their first prison term.  Most have excellent institutional records.  The fact that they have served far longer than thousands of people who committed comparable offenses, but who were given term-of-years sentences, is often not what their sentencing judges intended. 

It appears that the parole board has once again lost interest in releasing more than a handful of non-drug parolable lifers. From April 2011 – March 2012, it has chosen to proceed in just nine cases. 

The board’s lack of urgency is not the only hurdle parolable lifers face. Since 1992, the board only has to review lifers every five years. No interview is required: a single board member can peruse the file and indicate “no interest” in proceeding. 

When the board does decide to proceed, the sentencing judge or that judge’s successor can stop the process with a written objection. The judge does not have to state any reason for objecting and the decision cannot be appealed. In the last five years, 39 lifers have had their paroles vetoed -- 38 by successor judges who had no involvement in the original case.  

The parolable lifers are a unique population that has been whipsawed by changes in policy, practice, and personnel.  No matter how much they have earned a second chance, constant turnover on the parole board makes it difficult for them to get consistent consideration. As they age and develop health issues, they are becoming increasingly costly to house. Each decision to continue a lifer for five years costs taxpayers about $200,000. Fairness, good sense, and economics all suggest that paroling more lifers is a sound strategy for reducing prison spending

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