February 8, 2012 at 1:00 am

Audit: Michigan's prisoner re-entry initiative harms public safety, fails to track ex-convicts

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Lansing — A much heralded Michigan prisoner release program is only moderately effective, not sufficiently monitored and lacks proper record-keeping, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The audit is the second in less than a year criticizing the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, which the Department of Corrections has held up as a successful model of how to safely blend ex-convicts back into society.

Corrections officials claim the initiative — which has received more than $175 million since 2007, including $52 million last year — has cut recidivism by giving ex-convicts aid for housing, transportation, employment, health care and education.

The 32-page audit focuses on shortcomings and provides support to critics who say the department has put budget issues before public safety.

"This shows what we have been screaming about for three years," said Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, who has challenged state corrections policies. "The state has been more interested in cutting its budget than in the public's safety."

The audit's release comes as two state parole officers have been suspended pending an investigation into the monitoring, or lack of, of ex-cons Alan Craig Wood and Tonia Watson, both charged in the Nov. 20 killing of Nancy Dailey, 80, of Royal Oak.

Wood and Watson were both paroled in 2010 — Wood after serving time for a home invasion and Watson for car theft and a gun charge.

"Concerns about what happened in Royal Oak are just the tip of the iceberg," Cooper said.

Russell Marlan, a state corrections spokesman, would not elaborate Tuesday on the parole officer suspensions. Because Wood and Watson were felons associating with each other and failed to report to their parole officers, both could have been sent back to prison for parole violations.

In addition, both were under investigation but not charged in home invasions and thefts in Royal Oak and Berkley at the time of the Dailey slaying.

Marlan could not find a record Tuesday of either Wood or Watson being paroled under the re-entry program in 2010.

"I can't say for certain," Marlan said. "Now everything is just called prisoner re-entry. But every parolee is entitled to take advantage of the same services."

Marlan described the re-entry initiative, started in 2005, as "ever evolving." Others have praised it as a model for dealing with crowded prisons, helping to move more than 22,000 inmates out of incarceration.

The audit was conducted at five of 18 re-entry sites, including Wayne and Oakland counties, and covered 297 parolees out of 24,117.

"DOC has not established a comprehensive process to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of MPRI services," the audit found. It said that caused an inability to "assess strengths, weaknesses or overall effectiveness."

The audit found no standard reporting procedure among the 18 counties and that some either did not use Corrections Department data collection sheets, used their own form of reporting or failed to file any reports.

As a result, the state could not analyze data, including whether or not the parolees used any program services.

In another key finding, the audit said Corrections "did not have sufficient internal control to effectively implement" the re-entry initiative and could not determine "if parolees received and completed appropriate services, that the services were properly approved or that DOC staff could efficiently perform its MPRI duties." Internal records did not match up with state information for some parolees.

Marlan said the corrections department was "taking steps" to correct both problems. "We have had some data problems for years and are working with the state Public Health Department on a five-year contract to evaluate prisoner re-entry," he said.

Cooper said the department considers it a success when parole is completed without a return to prison for a new conviction or rules violation.

She said "numerous" parolees commit misdemeanors and lesser felonies that don't get them returned to prison. Others may get jail time or alternative sentences for matters that once might have meant prison.

"Are they repeat offenders?" she asked. "You bet they are."

mmartindale@detnews.com

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