Michigan speeds parole reviews but few prisoners qualify

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

California, which runs America's largest prison system, has announced plans to grant early release 3,500 to inmates due to the spread of the coronavirus.

But a similar mass exodus will not take place in Michigan. Though the state already paroles 9,000 prisoners per year, and has ramped up the pace of its parole process in recent weeks, few inmates are eligible for consideration.

This is the main entrance of the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan.

"We're looking to see, given this new reality, if there are there other cases that we can look at and then try to go through some of those a little bit quicker," said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. "We're trying to identify and then go through those cases and see what we can do with the numbers."

As of Wednesday morning, 122 of the state's 38,000 inmates had contracted the coronavirus. The day before, a corrections transportation officer in Detroit died after getting the virus.  

More:Michigan corrections officer dies after contracting coronavirus

As government officials work to keep the public safe, inmates in Michigan's prisons and county jails are particularly vulnerable to the virus, which thrives on large groups of people in tight spaces.

"In our setting, infectious diseases have the potential to spread much more rapidly than it does even in the community," said Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents about 6,000 corrections officers in the state prison system.

"There's so many people in an enclosed building," Osborn added. "You're talking 60, 70, 80 prisoners all using the same community restroom. There's just so many bodies in there, and everybody's touching everything, and it is what it is."

In March, Michigan's county jail population fell by anywhere from 25% to 75%, depending on the jail, according to the Michigan Sheriffs' Association. As of April 1, the state's three largest jails, in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, held less than 2,500 inmates between them.

Jail populations are falling as judges approve the early or tethered release of inmates thought to be vulnerable to the virus but posing low risk to public safety. In addition, fewer arrests being made, fewer warrants are being served, and fewer court matters are being heard, officials say.

More:Jail populations plunge in Metro Detroit as coronavirus spreads

But in the prison system, few inmates are eligible for parole consideration, and only so much can be done to speed that process. And commutations from the governor move even slower. The inflexibility owes to the "tough on crime" apparatus built decades ago.

About 28,000 of the 38,000 prisoners haven't yet served their minimum sentence, as required by the 1998 Truth in Sentencing law, said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz.

"We do not believe Truth in Sentencing is good policy," said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration. "Very few states have a policy like that. We're an extreme outlier. We have no path to earn 'good time' credits. That puts Michigan at a real extreme compared to other states."

Another 5,000 people are serving life sentences, though some are eligible for parole.

Within the remaining 5,000 prisoners, 1,300 are in for assaultive or sex-related crimes and 1,900 for violating parole, Gautz said. There is some overlap between the two groups.

"These are people that we gave a chance to before, and they couldn't follow the laws and the rules once we let them out," he said of the parole violators.  "We have to be cautious about putting them out again."

That leaves 1,800 people in for drug-related or nonviolent offenses, which is less than 5% of the prison population. And only 57 of them are 60 or older, Gautz said. 

"It's a very, very small number," he said.

Systemwide, though, people aged 60-plus are 25% of the prison population, according to the corrections department's 2018 statistical report. 

Natalie Holbrook, program manager for the Ypsilanti-based American Friends Service Committee, said the Quaker group "does not believe anybody should be perpetually punished for the worst thing they ever did."

She encouraged parole officials to take a "holistic" view of the cases they consider. Not only are parole violators and violent or sexual offenders worthy candidates for release, she said, some people serving extremely long sentences should be considered too, as they pose no current threat to society.

"A lot of folks have transformed themselves," Holbrook said. "Not because of prison, but in spite of it. They are stabilizing forces within the institution and would be stabilizing forces back in their communities."

Gautz, though, cited public safety concerns.

"The people who are in prison for long periods of time are the ones who have either long sentences, or the (parole) board doesn't feel comfortable letting them out because they would be a risk to society," he said.

The Quaker group has urged Michigan governors past and present to commute the sentences of prisoners serving long terms, with some success. In 2018, the committee published a paper called "Ending Perpetual Punishment: The case for commutations for people in Michigan prisons." 

But as Holbrook and Gautz both noted, the commutation process takes time. It's a months-long process requiring a public hearing.

More:Michigan prison system, jails adjust to coronavirus

"We often do a disservice by not lifting up people who are doing the longest time for the harshest offenses," Holbrook said. "There are people who haven't done anything terrible since the thing they did many years ago."

The prisoner's past, health situation and threat to public safety must all be weighed, Gautz said. Each case is different.

"There'll be tough choices and some probably aren't going to make the cut just because we have to weigh it: Do you release a sex offender into the community because he's slightly older?" Gautz said. "Or maybe he's younger but has a chronic care condition, and you're worried about him, potentially maybe catching a virus? Are they even in a facility that has the virus right now?"

Releases aren't the only way to affect the prison population. Fewer people are being returned to prison on minor parole violations, he said.

"We're bringing back the serious cases, the assaultive cases, the cases that really need to come back," Gautz said. "Does someone need to come in on a minor violation? Maybe before they would have gone to the (Detroit Re-Entry Center) as a wake up call, but that's not going to happen now. Why bring people into a system when we can monitor them in the community?"

The parole process has not been slowed by the statewide move away from face-to-face work meetings, because most interviews were already being held by video conferencing.

What can speed up is number of interviews held, decisions made and parolees who are approved who can be returned to society. In March, 718 inmates were released, compared to 670 in March 2019, the department said. Releases are expected to pick up even more in April, Gautz said.

"There are some cases where we've already voted to parole them, and we scheduled their parole date to be a couple weeks out," Gautz said. "Typically that takes us some time, to make sure that all the paperwork is in order and their home placement is correct. We're still doing all that, but our staff is just working extra hours and working through the weekend to get these done." 


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