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Michigan parole public hearings to resume in June remotely

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The Michigan Parole Board will resume public hearings in June, and they'll be held remotely, the Michigan Department of Corrections said.

The parole board suspended public hearings in mid-March, days after coronavirus cases were reported in Michigan. But this week it announced four hearings, all scheduled for early June. More are coming, said Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Whether the remote hearings will become standard after the virus crisis ends is not yet known, Kramer said.

The 10-member parole board works out of Lansing. As corrections department spokesman Chris Gautz told The News previously, most of its one-on-one interviews with potential parolees take place on video.

"They do their parole interviews by videoconference already anyway," Gautz said.

What's new is holding the public meetings digitally. But, as Kramer noted, government bodies across Michigan are holding meetings remotely, and allowing for public participation.

More:Public bodies balance virus fears, Open Meetings Act

"We had to make sure we were able to use technology to conduct these hearings and that we'd be able to set up our hearing rooms in a way that would allow them to be held remotely, but also provide for access to people who needed it," Kramer said.

This includes victims, members of the public who are interested and, in matters of executive clemency via pardon or commutation, a representative of the Michigan Attorney General's Office.

In normal times, before "stay-home" orders, before the outbreak of virus, the public meetings usually took place at the G. Robert Cotton facility in Jackson or the Richard A. Handlon facility in Ionia. 

In-person public hearings require the corrections department to transport the person in question to the hearing location and back. For now, public hearings will be held via Microsoft Teams. 

Lad Peete

Kramer said the parole board official conducting the hearing will ask potential parolees about their criminal history, how they've spent their time behind bars, what they've done to improve themselves and what kinds of support they'd have in the community if granted parole.

The first two to face hearings:

Lad Peete, 63, whose March 16 public hearing was postponed and will now take place June 2, was given two life sentences for two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1979 in Wayne County. 

Ronnie Waters, 57, was given a life sentence for assault with intent to murder in 1981 in Oakland County. 

The return of public hearings means that the executive clemency process can also resume.

Ronnie Waters

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and out of concern that an environment such as a prison posed a risk to inmates' health, activists and loved ones have urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pardon or grant clemency to prisoners, and get them out of the path of the virus, which has now killed 39 inmates and two staffers.

They have written letters and have carried out social media campaigns, such as #LetMiPeopleGo.

Executive clemency takes two forms in Michigan: pardons and commutations. As both processes require public hearings before the parole board can pass along its recommendation to the governor, both had been on hold.

The parole board "has the exclusive statutory duty to transmit its formal recommendation to the governor as to the merit of an application," according to the department of corrections.

Pardons erase a person's offense from the books. As the Michigan Department of Corrections website notes: "The Michigan Supreme Court has held that the effect of a pardon by the governor is such that it "releases the punishment and blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offense."

Pardons, the department says, are rare, and only 31 pardon applications are awaiting parole board consideration.

Commutations don't remove a conviction from the record, but make the person parole eligible. 

But even if every commutation application before the parole board was approved after a public hearing and Whitmer approved all of them, that would release only 120 people.

Since 1969, just less than 350 commutation requests have been granted, per the corrections department. 

All told, there are only about 150 executive clemency applications submitted. Michigan's prison population is almost 38,000.

In addition, since mid-April 71 new commutation applications have come in, and seven pardon applications, but were incomplete, Kramer added.

More:Michigan speeds parole reviews but few prisoners qualify

About 28,000 prisoners in Michigan cannot yet be considered for parole, as they have not served their minimum terms. Another 5,000 are serving life sentences. 

Not all paroles require a public hearing.

Michigan paroles about 9,000 people a year, but has ramped up some of its due-diligence procedures to get parole-eligible people out more quickly. While March was a normal month, with about 700 paroles, Gautz said previously he expected the numbers would increase in April.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75