Lawmakers push for early parole reform

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan prison policy fails to consider good behavior and rehabilitation when it comes to parole, some advocates say. 

Without rehabilitation, prison time can be pointless, said Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit. Carter is a sponsor of legislation intended to allow more consideration of prisoner self improvement efforts rather than focus on time served.

“If you take your car to the car wash and it comes out dirty, what’s the point?” Carter said. “Similarly, if people come out of a system the same way or worse, we failed them and we failed society.”

That’s why House and Senate lawmakers have introduced bills to allow sentence reductions by the Department of Corrections of up to 20% for good behavior or participating in rehabilitative programs. The bills use different methods to reward inmates’ good behavior and productivity. 

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he hopes it will work with the House package to make this change. The bills would open doors shut by the Truth in Sentencing law,  Irwin said. 

In 1998, voters passed Truth in Sentencing. It requires some inmates to serve their minimum sentences before they can be considered for parole.

Many of these people are not dangerous, and their release could save millions of tax dollars, Irwin said.

The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police opposes changes to Truth in Sentencing, said Robert Stevenson, its executive director.

“We don’t think it’s needed, and we don’t think it’s fair,” Stevenson said.

The law is needed to ensure uniformity, Stevenson said.

Before Truth in Sentencing, sentences for the same crime could vary widely based on location and the Corrections Department could reduce time served beyond prisoners’ minimums.

Stevenson said the proposed changes would take away judges’ discretion and are unfair to victims. 

“It’s hard to get into prison in Michigan, believe it or not,” Stevenson said. “You really do have to do some pretty serious violations, and multiple, to get into prison.”

Therefore, the proposal would really impact only violent offenders, Stevenson said, and prisoners should be kept for at least their minimum sentence, he said.

But Irwin said that Michigan does a poor job distinguishing which people are violent Additionally, the state has a high population of elderly prisoners whose release likely wouldn’t pose a safety threat.

Parole relies too much on the quantity of time spent, not how it was spent, said Irwin, and rehabilitation should be a factor in release.

Carter said the House and Senate bills attempt to do that in different ways, but both want the same thing The House package would introduce “productivity” credits, based on participation in rehabilitative programs.

These programs are to prepare prisoners for release as rehabilitated members of society. That could involve obtaining a GED, higher education or skills in a particular craft. 

Irwin’s bill would motivate prisoners by offering “good time” credits, which are given for good behavior and avoiding trouble. 

Priscilla Bordayo, the coordinator of Lansing’s chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, agrees that good behavior should be rewarded. As a victim of crime, Bordayo believes mercy and justice must go hand in hand.

“I believe that they should serve their time,” she said. “But I’m more focused on what they’re doing with that time.”

The Corrections Department hasn’t taken a position, said Chris Gautz, its public information officer.

These rehabilitation programs already exist and would not require new funding to implement, he said.

The only cost for “credit” programs like those is administrative staff, Irwin said. Those costs would be offset by reducing long prison stays.

Despite that, Attorney General Dana Nessel has called the bills unnecessary and detrimental.

“These bills attempt to save the state money at a cost to be borne by crime victims and our communities,” she wrote in a Detroit News editorial.

That’s also Stevenson’s main argument.

“Let’s say you lost a sister or a brother to crime, they’re gone forever, right?” he said. “The person that killed them, should they be back out enjoying their life when they’re 60 or 65?”

However, Bordayo said she has problems with that logic because those aren’t life sentences and those inmates will be released eventually.

So, Bordayo said, the real question should be whether those released have had a chance to better themselves.

Additionally, not all victims want the same things, she said. And victims and their families will be kept in the loop from start to finish about possible releases.

These decisions will still ultimately be for the parole board, Bordayo said. But programs that recognize and reward good behavior and progress would incentivize improvement.

“What most victims want, more than just justice, is what happened to them to not be repeated,” Bordayo said. “So to me as a victim, that’s a win-win.’’

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