Prosecutors want Craig LeRoy Atkins, released in November after more than 20 years, back in prison, but he says he deserves a chance. Still, "times are tough and especially tough for anyone who has been in prison," said Atkins, who hopes to find work as a paralegal. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Hundreds of Michigan prison inmates convicted of violent crimes -- including 40 killers in Wayne County alone -- are eligible for release in the next two months as the state accelerates paroles to cut costs.
A recently compiled list of thousands of potential parolees obtained by The Detroit News provides a snapshot of who is on deck as the state seeks to trim its corrections budget by 6 percent in 2010. It includes some of the state's worst criminals, as well as hundreds of sex offenders, drug dealers, drunken drivers and bank robbers.
The list, demanded by Metro Detroit prosecutors and released only after a judge's order, provides a rare glimpse inside a process that has been going on routinely for years -- but is now under fire from law enforcement officials worried they don't have the time or resources to challenge potential parolees they believe pose a threat to public safety.
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper led the fight to sue for the information because she said her office was repeatedly denied information about planned interviews of parole candidates in sufficient time to appeal certain cases.
The state argued that names of eligible parolees were only available a month in advance, but it was later determined the Parole Board's database included information on interviews scheduled months ahead of time.
"The Michigan Department of Corrections says 'trust us' in releasing criminals on parole to save money," said Cooper, who has called the state's effort "reckless."
"If (state officials) are so trustworthy, why did we have to sue them to obtain the list of individuals they are seeking to release?"
Cooper, along with prosecutors in several other counties statewide, already has gone to court to protest some paroles. Attorney General Mike Cox has initiated a Parole Objection Project to oppose parole of violent offenders he believes remain a threat to the public.
'Every right' to parole
Among the cases prosecutors have taken on:
The state maintains it is not releasing prisoners early, but rather releasing more inmates closer to the minimum end of their sentences. Michigan is one of eight states with indeterminate sentencing, which means that most convicted felons are given a minimum and maximum portion to their sentence.
"These are people who have served out their minimum and with some exceptions, have every right to a parole," said state Corrections Department spokesman John Cordell. "Sure, we have accelerated paroles, but that's because we were keeping people in prison too long."
The issue is taking on renewed importance after Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently proposed $566 million in cuts to the 2010-11 corrections budget. Some $140 million of the savings would come from sentencing reforms, including reinstatement of "good time" and other measures that would reduce the prison population by 10,000 in 2011. The proposal also calls for closure of four to five prisons.
Numbers alarm prosecutors
All told, 928 felons statewide will have a shot at parole from March 1 through the end of April. They are among nearly 16,000 inmates included in the list of eligible parolees released by the state in response to Cooper's lawsuit.
By law, prosecutors are notified immediately after paroles are approved. The prisoner is then held for at least 28 days to give prosecutors time to appeal the parole.
Prior to Cooper's lawsuit, prosecutors were not notified of pending parole interviews. Victims -- or their families, if victims are deceased -- are notified of pending parole board interviews only upon prior written request.
In March and April, 72 killers statewide are eligible for parole, including 40 in Wayne County; five in Saginaw County; three each in Genesee, Kent and Oakland counties; and two each in Bay, Jackson and Macomb counties. Also eligible for parole are 227 sex offenders; 265 inmates convicted of some form of assault or robbery; and 148 drug dealers.
The numbers alarm prosecutors statewide, who are concerned that felons who normally would have not been considered for parole at their earliest eligibility date are now being approved.
Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith said he is concerned that a "mini-crime wave is getting ready to happen" across the state.
"Police budgets are down," he said. "The number of police officers out there is at its lowest in years. And the economy is bad with few opportunities for those without criminal records.
"Toss in the mix an increase in paroles ... and there is a real potential for trouble."
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stressed she's not against giving people a second chance, but believes little, if any, screening is being done by the parole board or state officials.
"I can't even tell you how many have been released in the past year -- I know I have well over 1,000 names and all we can do is look for the worst of the worst," she said. "I know I could use help."
Parolee ranks growing
Overall, the number of prisoners released in Michigan was up 17.2 percent in 2009 over the previous year, while the number eligible for parole was up, too, at 16.1 percent, according to statistics from the state Department of Corrections.
Sex offenders in particular have a better chance at winning parole than in the past, statistics show. In 2008, the latest year for which figures were available, 21 percent of sex offenders won parole, compared with 15.4 percent the previous year.
Still, sex offenders have the lowest rate of parole compared to other criminals. Drug offenders had the highest rate, with 80.6 percent of those eligible winning parole in 2008; followed by other non-violent offenders, at 70.8 percent; and violent offenders, 43.1 percent.
One rape victim from Livingston County said she is living in fear of the pending parole of her attacker -- her ex-husband, Charles Feuquay.
The parole board agreed to release Feuquay in October, but he has yet to be freed because of a challenge by Cooper's office. Feuquay has served 12 years and nine months of a 15- to 30-year sentence.
He was convicted in February 1997 on two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for the 1996 rape of his former wife, who was gagged, duct-taped to a bed and repeatedly attacked at knifepoint.
Feuquay was eligible for parole prior to his minimum because he was sentenced prior to a 1998 "truth in sentencing" law that eliminated certain credits for good behavior.
"I've had nightmares. Been in therapy. He's ruined my life," the woman said. "He is a menace to society, not just to me. ...
"Why should I have to change my locks and always be looking over my shoulder?" she asked. "I think he should be made to do his entire 30 years."
Policy choices swell prisons
Proponents of relaxing parole restrictions say the steady growth in Michigan's prison population since 1973 has resulted in a "prison industry" that the state cannot afford.
Barbara Levine, executive director of the non-partisan, Lansing-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, insists that freeing prisoners by their earliest eligibility release date is "long past due." The group believes policy choices, not crime rates, have driven up the prison population.
"We've been arguing for this for years," Levine said. "Michigan has grown a prison industry over the past decade by not releasing prisoners. Now we are seeing prosecutors argue against minimum sentences -- which they once plea-bargained to get convictions -- and now want to ignore," she said. "You can't have it both ways."
Furthermore, length of time served "bears no relationship" to a parolee's success, she said.
"We had tried to see -- from our data and that from others around the country -- if keeping people a year or two longer in prison would reduce recidivism. We just didn't find it. There was no magic number (of years)."
In the past year, the state corrections department has closed three prisons and five of its camps for low-risk prisoners. State prison officials have set a goal of $120 million in savings for the 2009-2010 corrections budget and the release of about 3,000 more inmates.
Giving parolees support
Barbara Sampson, chairwoman of the state Parole and Commutation Board, said board members, who are appointed to four-year terms by Granholm, are well aware that their role is critical as the state accelerates paroles.
Emphasis has been on increasing support programs, so when inmates are paroled they have appropriate supervision for up to two years to make the transition, she said.
The Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, which uses community agencies and resources to help ex-cons stay straight, make appointments and get jobs, has had "huge implications for us," she said.
"We have greater confidence in tools we can take advantage of in considering paroles," Sampson said.
Parolee Nathan Roston, 51, of Pontiac, says he is an example of how the right support programs can help inmates turn their lives around once they're released.
Roston is out after eight and half years in prison for home invasion. It is his second time on parole. The first time -- in 1997 -- he was discharged to an area mission, without a support system.
"This time I'm really working hard to do it right," said Roston, an aspiring artist who used some of his prison time to draw and paint.
"No, it's not easy. It's probably the hardest thing I've done," he said. "But without the help of the re-entry program, I probably wouldn't have got this far. I know I can make it happen."