Michigan prison reform gaining momentum in fall session

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.

More coverage: Prosecutor: Public safety should trump prison reform

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.”

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Thu, 09/24/2015 - 10:04am
So, we can't take into account their initial charges. We can only look at how they have behaved while in prison. Is someone is capable of committing a crime once, aren't they capable of doing that again? I don't see anything in this article in regard to recidivism rates. How many of those released early re-offend?
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 10:06am
I'm sorry. I misspoke. I meant there are no statistics on recidivism rates. Violent vs. non-violent. And, of those non-violent offenders, how many re-offend with things other than felonies?
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 6:15pm
Do your research there is plenty of proof on all of your concerns
Charles Richards
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 3:53pm
This article is remarkably short of information. Where is the data comparing the risk to society scores to recidivism rates? Where is the data listing recidivism rates by how many years above the minimum were served?
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 7:10pm
I understand, an embezzler is only taking money why keep the jailed. The company the stole from was relatively small, less thah 50 people, so when the company went out of business it only affected those employees, their families, the local stores and shops they frequented and those who worked there. It was only money and if you used the money circulation that the polititians like to mentioned the $100,000 plus only cost the community between half million and a million dollars. There are the church/charitable agencies stolen from, but we should talk about the losses those they help suffered. I have found that those who claim something is a 'no brainer' is only because they are unwilling to engage their brain to think about what the unintended consequence that can/will happen and could have been avoided will be.
Mon, 09/28/2015 - 2:03pm
I think you would be surprised how hard it is to even get property crimes pursued in the first place. The attitude is that's what insurance is for. But I am also sure they're swamped and probably wouldn't want to pay for the number of cops that would be needed to pursue everything they could.
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 1:19am
Matt, Since moving into our community several years ago it seems that embezzling is a cottage industry. I don't know whose doing the discovery work, but is seems like every year there is one or two that are convicted and sentence to prison for a few years plus restitution (I doubt that happens). They have closed at least one business and severly cause problems for other businesses and several charities over the years. The local judges do send them to prison.
mary stone
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 9:53pm
I was at the CAPPS meeting on Tues in Lansing. It was Fantastic. Talking about going forward with the prison reform etc. I receive a email from my friend in Coldwater. They got a memo that on Oct 27th "street clothes" will no longer be permitted on visits. So as we are trying to go forward the MDOC is going backwards. Is there any one we can contact on this matter?? Thank you Mary
Fri, 09/25/2015 - 1:35pm
There is no question that Michigan's justice and prison system is among the most punitive state-based systems in the U.S. This is widely known. Attempts have been made to put a positive spin on the system such as renaming the prisons "correctional facilities," and the guards "correction officers." Past Republican administration and prosecutors state wide have pushed for this just as they have pressed for, and have eliminated, "earned time" or "good time" whereby several days or several weeks may be "earned" through good behavior to shorten the inmate's sentence. However, few moves have been more hurtful AND expensive than the closing of state mental institutions in the late 1990s and to move thousands of mentally challenged individuals into state prisons. A former head of the Michigan Department of Correction has said that up to 10,000 of the state's prison population are mentally challenged. To make the housing of prisons even more difficult, upward toward half this group must be medicated on a daily basis. Without question, the practices of the MDOC (forced upon those in charge by state leaders one administration after another) has created one of the most inhumane prison environments in the United States. Without action being taken in Lansing to respond to these practices, policies, and conditions our state will continue to HARM thousands of men and women in our state prisons. If anyone doubts anything I have said, I'd like to hear from you.
Mon, 09/28/2015 - 2:12pm
Would prison sentencing reform really do an good without giving a hard look at drug laws and treatment as well as mental illness? Seems many or most inmates are there directly or indirectly related to drugs and mental illness. Sounds like a bigger issue than just letting mirror offending people out of jail.
Wed, 09/30/2015 - 1:09pm
I can't say it any better than David Brooks said it in The New York Times yesterday (Tuesday, September 29). Quoting: "In the 1970s, we let a lot of people out of mental institutions. Over the next decades we put a lot of people into prisons. But the share of people kept out of circulation has been strangely continuous. In the real world, crime, lack of education, mental health issues, family breakdown and economic hopelessness are all intertwined."