Detroit area police oppose automatic parole for inmates

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Representatives from four Metro Detroit counties and state attorney general Bill Schuette stood together Monday to oppose a proposed law that will permit inmates to be paroled once they’ve served their minimum sentence.

Barring any issues during incarceration that a person poses a danger to society, the House-passed bill would automatically trigger eligibility for parole. What’s known as presumptive parole is before the state Senate.

Opponents at a Monday news conference described the bill as ill-conceived and predicted it could have serious consequences in public safety. The push toward early parole is driven by an effort to reduce costs. The annual cost to house an inmate in a Michigan state prison in 2014 was $35,149. The annual Corrections Department budget is around $2 billion.

Some, such as Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who hosted the news conference at his offices, said releasing inmates shifts the costs onto local government if parolees commit offenses.

“County jails around Michigan are dealing with overcrowded jails,” Bouchard said. “Instead of looking at ways to alleviate problems the Legislature is shifting correction costs onto local government and putting our communities at risk.”

“Parole is not a right. We need to slow this (legislation) down and need a model for predicting behavior (of potential parolees).”

Hold on, said one of the bill’s advocates, Barbara Levine, the associate director for policy and research at the nonprofit Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Spending. She said that is what the law has intended all along.

“Inmates are supposed to be eligible for parole if they have served their time without any serious incidents and have scored high on tests showing they are low risk for re-offending they should no longer be in prison,” Levine said. “This doesn’t do anything new. There still will be reviews. There still will be scoring.

“The problem is for decades the Parole Board has subjectively held up paroles of hundreds of inmates whose scores should have permitted them to be released. Parole boards have broadly defined what circumstances constitute substantial and compelling reasons for denial — and essentially resentenced people past a minimum sentence.”

Levine’s group estimate about 1,900 people who completed minimum sentences and scored high have been denied release and are still in prison. They have spent an average of 2.6 years beyond their first release date.

There were 10,540 people released on parole in 2013 (2014 data was not available). She said parolees who score high are less likely to re-offend or to crowd county jails.

Under the increase in paroles it is estimated that within five years there will be 3,200 fewer beds at a savings of $75 million a year, Levine’s group said.

Bouchard and others at the news conference urged citizens to contact their lawmakers to raise their concerns.

“Public safety is the first responsibility of government,” Schuette said. “Autopilot release of violent offenders is bad for our neighborhoods, cities and small towns.

“This is a bad idea ... it endangers the citizens of Michigan.”

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, a former judge who has had her own legal battles with the state over releasing dangerous parolees, noted the opposition to presumptive parole was nonpartisan.

“We are on the same page here ... this is a dangerous situation,” Cooper said gesturing at Schuette and officials from Macomb, Wayne, Genesee counties.

Cooper ticked off six parolees who were convicted of high-profile murders in Oakland County in the past six years after their release from prison.

“We do everything we can to keep people out of jail and prison but ... this is what happens when you aren’t careful of the people you release,” Cooper said. “If you are going to change it (parole rules) then talk about it ... study it.”

Cooper provided a Prosecuting Attorney Association of Michigan report, supported by U.S. Department of Justice statistics, which shows about one in four probationers are rearrested within a year of release from supervision and half of individuals entering prison are sentenced for violating probation or parole. Cooper said it was “folklore” that prisons are full of inmates serving sentences for drug convictions and that they make up less than 8 percent of the prison population.

Michigan has the highest violent crime rate in the Midwest, 39.6 percent higher than 11 other states. Michigan’s crime rate 55.8 percent higher than Ohio and 16.8 percent higher than the national average.

Despite downward trends nationally, the violent crime rates in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw were five times higher than the national rate.

Worse, Cooper pointed out, the parole proposal comes as the number of police in the state has dropped 17 percent since 2001. Michigan had 18,621 officers in 2014 compared to 22,488 in 2001.

Michigan’s prison population had declined from 51,454 inmates in 2006 to 43,704 in 2013. Of these:

■ 30,239 — 70.1 percent of the population — were in prison for an assaultive crime.

■ 19,040 inmates were serving time for a life offense, including 8,059 for murder or assault with intent to murder offenses.

■ 5,654 inmates were behind bars for armed robbery, carjacking or assault with intent to commit armed robbery

■ 3,655 inmates are imprisoned for criminal sexual conduct, first degree.

Since 2005, Michigan has closed 11 correctional facilities and 11 prison camps but still operates 31 state prisons and the state corrections budget has remained flat, Bouchard said.

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