Guest column: Real truth in sentencing could save really big prison dollars

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Michelle Van Dusen
Thu, 03/29/2012 - 1:30pm
Real Truth in Sentencing Could Save Realiy Big Prison Dollars article hits our problem right on the head. This has been an ongoing issue over the years within the department. Having worked in the MDOC for over 25 years and sat in on multiple Parole Board hearing has lead me to believe in the truths this article publishes. The Parole Board needs to take more time researching the inmates they are addressing during their hearing with a face to face hearing, opposed to the tele-conference type hearing that have come touse.
Thu, 03/29/2012 - 8:30pm
Thank you for your 34 years of service in the correctional system. You and your peers have kept us safer due to your dedicated work. I value your input on this parole question. Why would a prison want to keep an inmate any longer than necessary?If the minimum sentence has been served and there have been no behavioral problems with the individual, let that person go. And perhaps a prisoner could pick up additional "good time" by taking classes, participating in AA or other groups, providing some service to the community.
Thu, 03/29/2012 - 9:29pm
One of the reasons is the middle-class jobs that the mostly low-income inmates provide. The good paying manufacturing jobs are nearly gone but prisons have enabled better paying government jobs to flourish from guards, to attorneys to social workers. Thank God for the poor and desperate that have helped to fill the employment gaps left by sending jobs overseas! Our appreciation also goes out to morally righteous legislators and their supporters that have filled the prisons with mostly non-violent drug users.
Thu, 03/29/2012 - 11:04pm
Expedited parole decisions will undoubtedly lower the prison population, but so would a couple of other reforms and probably more dramatically. Sentencing guidelines need to be rational rather than political. We need a sentencing commission. Recidivism needs to be lowered and that requires a much improved MPRI system. Our parole system is not nearly as effective as it could be.