Michigan Senate approves parole, probation reforms

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Senate on Thursday approved a 21-bill package that aims to reduce “recidivism” and potentially curb long-term prison costs, jump-starting a criminal justice reform debate that stalled out last year in the Legislature.

Sponsoring Sen. John Proos said the centerpiece of the bipartisan package is a bill that defines recidivism as the re-arrest, re-conviction or re-incarceration of an individual who commits a crime or violates the terms of their probation or parole.

“We are defining for the first time in Michigan’s history what success and failure looks like,” said Proos, R-St. Joseph.

The package proposes a new “sanctions certainty act” to encourage parole compliance by imposing clear but immediate penalties, including up to 30 days in jail. It also would prohibit parole absconders from receiving cash or food welfare assistance from the state.

But the legislation would minimize punishments for “technical” probation violations, allow well-behaved probationers the chance to halve their state supervision period and create a new program to reimburse companies that hire individuals on probation or parole.

Other bills approved Thursday would require the Michigan Department of Corrections to house 18- to 22-year-old prisoners separately from older adults and expedite parole board reviews of medically frail prisoners for possible sentence commutation by the governor.

“The primary goal of these bills is to make sure the tax dollars we spend fix the problems of individuals who are committing crimes in our communities, and when we decrease crime in our communities, we increase productivity,” Proos told reporters after a series of mostly unanimous votes.

The package is now headed to the House for further consideration and is similar to legislation that passed the Senate last year. Last year’s bills did not see a vote in the lower chamber, which had its own reform ideas.

Seeking common ground

Proos said he has had conversations with new House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, and believes they can find common ground this year.

The House approved separate criminal justice reforms last session, including a controversial “presumptive parole” proposal that could have sped up the release of some well-behaved prisoners who had already served their minimum sentences.

Gov. Rick Snyder supported the House plan, but fellow Republican and Attorney General Bill Schuette vocally opposed the presumptive parole measure, which never saw a vote in the Senate.

Barbara Levine, associate director for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said presumptive parole would tangibly reduce the state’s prison population, making it a more meaningful reform than any Senate bills approved Thursday.

“Our goal has always been to focus on ways to actually reduce the prison population, and none of these bills actually directly do that,” Levine said. “Some of the bills set good aspirations about evidence-based programming … but it’s hard to say for sure what they are going to accomplish.”

Supporters say the Senate legislation could help keep probationers or parolees out of jail, saving the state money in the long run. But some proposals will entail up-front costs.

The new “parole sanction certainty” program would create additional supervision costs for state and local governments, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. But if fewer parolees went back to prison as a result of the program, the state would avoid future incarceration costs.

It costs about $34,000 a year for the state to house a prisoner, and Michigan consistently spends about $2 billion a year on corrections. As of Jan. 1, the state had 41,152 prisoners, 44,991 probationers and 16,232 parolees.

Michigan could save money under a bill approved Thursday that would allow some probationers to halve their supervisory period for good behavior, if recommended by their parole officer. The proposal would give victims the chance to argue against a probation term reduction during a court hearing.

Attorney General Bill Schuette said Thursday he support the Senate package because it "is a smart approach to not just breaking the cycle of incarceration, but making sure the voices of victims of violent crime are heard. ... I encourage the Michigan House to pass this important legislation."

Some reforms questioned

It costs Michigan about $3,024 per year to supervise a felony probationer. If all 45,000 probationers qualified for halved supervision periods – an outcome that is highly unlikely – the state could save upwards of $68 million a year, according to the House Fiscal Agency.

The Michigan Department of Corrections is generally supportive of the reform push, but has raised concerns about the proposed requirement for separate housing facilities for 18- to 22-year-old prisoners.

The proposal, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park, could keep younger inmates away from older criminals who could be a negative influence or otherwise dangerous. The department says it could have unintended consequences.

“Michigan has tried that in the past, and it has not gone well,” legislative liaison Kyle Kaminski said last month in committee testimony. “That is the segment of the population that’s most likely to act out, most likely to be gang-involved, most likely to settle things with fist and fighting versus talking through things.”

Johnson said the legislation is designed to focus on the rehabilitation of younger prisoners, suggesting research shows that peer groups are an important step in that process. But he’s heard feedback from the Corrections Department and is willing to consider an alternative approach.

“We don’t want to create a new gladiator school,” Johnson said after Thursday’s voting. “We’ve been down that road before.”

State legislators already budgeted $3 million this year for one of the Senate proposals that would give the Department of Corrections and regional administrators an incentive to reduce parole and probation revocations 10 percent over 18 months.

They have not yet appropriated funding for a bill that would require the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development to create an employer reimbursement program for companies that hire probationers or parolees.

If the state spent $500,000 on the program, and used 10 percent for administration, it could support the hiring of 300 part-time employees or 187 employees, according to House Fiscal.