Criminal justice bills would define problems to help solve them

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s recidivism rate is significantly higher than the national average. Or is it?

No one knows for sure, supporters of a criminal justice revamp package say, thanks to a lack of agreement among state agencies about which measurements to use in defining how often convicted criminals go on to commit future crimes. And that’s just one part of the problem.

A piece of legislation defining recidivism and how to calculate a rate is one of 20 bills in a package that supporters say would enhance the efficiency of Michigan’s criminal justice system. The package awaits approval from Gov. Rick Snyder after clearing the House and Senate with bipartisan support.

The bills would institute changes throughout the system: Reforms to data tracking, prison time, probation and parole policies, and reentry approaches are included.

“The criminal justice system is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s an issue about what’s good for Michigan’s future,” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, the main sponsor.

Michigan has 42,000 inmates in prison, with 68,000 more on parole or probation. All of these people interacting with Michigan’s criminal justice system “causes significant costs to our state,” Proos said.

One of the intended goals of the package, Proos said, is to make sure the Department of Corrections is producing “successful outcomes in the rehabilitation and reform of offenders” to decrease these numbers.

Chris Gautz, a public information officer for Corrections, said the department played an “advisory role” throughout the process of drafting the legislation and offered advice to make sure the ideas would work as intended.

“From the department’s perspective, we’ve seen that criminal justice reform has seen a renewed interest,” Gautz said, “and we’re happy to see that and we’re happy to help in any way.”

Michigan is among the top 10 or 15 states for recidivism rates, Gautz said. The department measure tags Michigan’s rate at about 31 percent, down from much higher rates in previous decades. The state’s prison population is down from a peak of 51,000 in 2007, Gautz said.

“We feel very good about that downward trend,” Gautz said.

But Proos said the prison population remains too high, at least in part because too many prisoners are parole or probation violators who many not have committed new crimes and don’t need to be behind bars.

Nancy Hogan, a criminal justice professor at Ferris State University with a specialty in corrections, said the current system makes it too easy for ex-prisoners to be sent back to prison simply because of a technical violation of their parole or probation.

“You get people going on the right track, and maybe they slip up, but the penalties ultimately reverse the good things,” said Hogan, who is “very pleased” with the legislative package overall.

“When you bring them back to jail on that technical [violation], and leave them there long enough to lose their job, lose their apartment,” all of the gains they had previously made are lost, Hogan said.

A bill that would limit to 30 days the amount of time a probation violator could be locked up for technical violations could help to alleviate this problem, Hogan said.

According to Proos, the legislation would reduce crime by investing in data-driven reentry practices and programs that have proven successful elsewhere.

“We went to great lengths to create or to review and understand best practices in other states and jurisdictions, and sought to make them Michigan’s best practices in the future,” Proos said.

The Parole Sanction Certainty Act created by one of the bills, for example, is modeled after similar programs in states including Hawaii, Georgia and Washington that have seen favorable results. The Michigan version would give parole officers the authority to institute immediate sanctions – clearly outlined and agreed upon ahead of time – for offenders who fail to comply with their parole requirements.

The new program would ensure parolees avoid returning to prison by better monitoring probationers and parolees, and allowing sanctions to “help keep them on the straight and narrow,”

“It really holds them accountable for their behavior,” Hogan said of the proposed Parole Sanction Certainty Act.

Hogan’s main concern regarding the package is that the state won’t allocate some of the funds saved by reducing prison populations to local entities, which she said is important because reducing the prison population could mean increasing stays at local jails.

Proos said the state would ultimately save money by reducing the number of prisoners who end up back up in the system after release. That money could then be used to reinvest in programs aimed at improving the success rates of individuals under Department of Corrections supervision.

But it might prove challenging to measure the success of these bills when there are multiple definitions of success.

“Every agency that works within the criminal justice division – everybody defines recidivism under different circumstances with different input. If you have different definitions, no one trusts each other’s data,” Proos said.

The department’s performance summary scorecard for February 2017 defines the recidivism rate as “the percent of offenders who return to prison within three years.” In Michigan, the scorecard notes, that figure “has been in a narrow range of around 30 percent since 2008.”

But critics say the definition leaves unclear exactly what a “return to prison” means. Does a re-arrest count as recidivism? A return to jail?

“We have to come up with a single definition that cannot be argued from one agency to the next,” Proos said.

The legislation would standardize the state’s definition of recidivism to mean “re-arrest, reconviction or incarceration in prison or jail within five years of release from incarceration, placement on probation or conviction (whichever is latest) for convictions and probation and parole violations.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what our numbers are once we separate it all out,” Hogan said, and recidivism “might not be as high as we think it is.”

If adopted, Proos said, Michigan would be one of only two states to define recidivism by law.

In general, Hogan said the legislation is a step in the right direction – although she feels that “providing the resources so that we can do it right” is just as important.

“I’m glad to see that people are trying to get the system to work better,” she said.