The 60-year-old Michigan woman didn’t sound like a danger to society. She’d never had a criminal record until 2013, when she was convicted twice of larceny, and sentenced to 13 months to four years in prison, according to Barbara Levine, of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS), a prison reform group. According to Levine, the woman is a model prisoner with her only misconduct notice for showing up to receive medicine 30 minutes early.
Yet when her minimum sentence was served, the 60-year-old was denied parole. “Based on all the information viewed, the prisoner does not have the tools she needs to help reduce her risk to the public,” the parole board noted, according to Levine.
That 60-year-old thief is a part of what prison reform advocates say is a big-time problem for Michigan, where the budget for the Department of Corrections swallows 20 percent of the state’s General Fund, which pays for most state services. Addressing the economic – and human – costs of Michigan’s prison system was the topic of a corrections reform symposium Tuesday in Lansing. About 100 people, ranging from legislators and advocates to family members of current prisoners, met to discuss ways to decrease the state’s prison population, an idea that is generating bipartisan support in Lansing, and nationally.
Groups ranging from the conservative-leaning Mackinac Center to the ACLU of Michigan are throwing their support behind prison reform. The Washington, D.C. based U.S. Justice Action Network has picked Michigan as one of three states where it will focus its efforts to reduce prison costs (the other two states are Ohio and Pennsylvania), and Gov. Rick Snyder has made criminal justice reform one of his main focuses for 2015.
That bipartisan momentum - Republican and Democrat legislators attended Tuesday’s symposium - is carrying over to legislation that may be considered this fall in Lansing.
A Pew Charitable Trusts study published in 2013 found that Michigan has the longest average prison time served of any of 35 states studied with inmates serrving 17 months longer than the national average. Michigan prisoners serve 125% of their judicially imposed minimum sentences.
House Bill 4138 would address that issue by creating a “presumptive parole” standard. Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, most inmates who meet already-established prison standards for being a low risk to society would be released. Under the state’s current policy, meeting this standard does not lead to a presumption of parole. In fact, the risk-to-society scores are frequently ignored, Levine said.
According to department of corrections figures published by CAPPS, there are 1,900 prisoners in Michigan prisons who received low-risk scores but were denied parole when their minimum sentences were finished anyway.
The policy change, if enacted, would only apply to prisoners who enter the state prison system after the policy goes into effect, so there would be no savings immediately. But within five years, about 3,200 prisoners would likely be released who wouldn’t have otherwise, saving the state about $75 million. Savings would increase as the policy is in place longer. The parole board would still have the discretion to deny parole if there were “compelling reasons.”
“Why do we keep low-risk people beyond their earliest release date? Often it appears the (parole) board is reacting to the nature of the offense” rather than their current risk to the community they’d return to, Levine said.
The bill was approved by the House Committee on Criminal Justice and June, and is awaiting a hearing in the full House.
Gov. Rick Snyder supports presumptive parole, but a similar effort last year drew criticism from state Attorney General and fellow Republican Bill Schuette, who said releasing prisoners earlier was a “threat to public safety.”
Mike Wendling, St Clair County Prosecutor and president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, urged caution about presumptive parole. “PAAM agrees with Gov. Snyder and our Legislature that certain reforms can be made within our criminal justice system to positively impact Michigan’s budget and the safety of our citizens,” Wendling said in an email to Bridge. “(But) when it comes to aggressively releasing parolees, however, we need to be cautious, especially as it relates to violent offenders. Many violent parolees re-victimize once they’re released.”
Studies don’t show an increase in recidivism among prisoners released at their minimum sentences, Levine said.
Parole reform could be just the first of numerous changes in Michigan’s prison considered by the Legislature, all aimed at lowering the state’s inmate population. Other reforms being discussed in Lansing: the parole of elderly and seriously ill prisoners; halting the sentencing 17-year-olds as adults and other sentencing modifications.
Former Rep. Joe Haveman, the legislature’s leading advocate for corrections reform before leaving Lansing last year due to term limits, told symposium attendees that reforms like presumptive parole are a “no-brainer.” Beside the potential budget savings, “the politics are on our side,” Haveman said. “The paradigm has shifted. The public is on the side (of corrections reform). The media is on this side.
“Those who disagree with reform say they’re keeping our streets safe,” Haveman said. “Those are the exact words I heard 20 years ago (when Michigan was building prisons to house an exploding inmate population) and it didn’t work. Republicans created this mess and it’s our mess to clean up.”