House OKs reform bill on releasing nonviolent inmates

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan House approved Thursday tightening the guidelines for the state’s parole board to deny an inmate release from prison in a move aimed at releasing non-violent offenders after they’ve served their minimum mandatory sentences.

The GOP-controlled House passed the legislation on a 67-39 vote after a passionate floor debate over changing the direction of Michigan’s history of keeping inmates locked up well beyond their minimum sentences. It also came after Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette tried to stop momentum for the legislation Wednesday by saying it would put parole on “autopilot.”

“We are talking about a system right now that is clearly and obviously and without any legitimate argument holding people in prison too long,” said Rep. Ed McBroom, a Dickinson County Republican. “Why do we even have minimums if we’re not going to use them?”

But opponents, siding with Schuette, warned against taking away the parole board’s broad discretion to deny an inmate’s release in the name of cutting the state’s $2 billion annual state Department of Corrections budget.

“I think what will happen is parole officers will be judged by the number of inmates they let out,” said Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake. “To me, money can’t be the primary focus here.”

The Department of Corrections estimates the legislation would lead to a decline of 3,000 prison beds over a decade, saving the state $80 million annually in the 11th year.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Schuette issued a warning to lawmakers that the legislation would put “Michigan’s parole on autopilot by creating presumptive parole for certain dangerous felons.”

“Requiring prisoners to be paroled simply because they have served the minimum sentence rather than releasing them only after full parole board review seriously endangers the public,” he wrote in the letter distributed to House members on Wednesday.

“This bill’s a dangerous approach to our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw.

Supporters of the legislation accused the state’s chief law enforcement officer of engaging in “fear-mongering,” arguing the bill gives the Department of Corrections discretion to keep a risky offender locked up.

“All we’re saying is if you meet the thresholds for release, you’re going to be released,” said Rep. Kurt Heise, a Plymouth Township Republican and the bill sponsor. “There are safeguards in place. ... This is not on autopilot. That’s a great bumper sticker, folks. … This is a very well-thought out process that we have put into place.”

Heise’s House Bill 4138 seeks to end a longstanding practice of the state parole board of keeping low-risk inmates locked up beyond their minimum mandatory sentences.

“This bill doesn’t actually create a new standard for parole,” said Barbara Levine, associate director for research and policy for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a group advocating for the legislation. “The purpose of this bill is to cure a problem.”

Under the legislation, future inmates could get paroled after serving their minimum sentences if the Corrections Department deems them low-risk felons who have not threatened to harm anyone upon release and cannot be linked through DNA to other unsolved crimes. The inmates also would have to exhibit good behavior while behind bars, Levine said.

Some proponents sought to detach the bill from the “presumptive parole” label that has been associated with a past reform measure.

“It’s more like presumption that there’s the possibility of parole,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy.

The parole board would have to cite “substantial and compelling reasons” to keep a nonviolent offender locked up beyond his or her minimum sentence, according to Levine.

The bill would not apply to about 1,900 offenders currently behind bars who have already served their minimum sentences and are eligible for parole, Levine said.

Michigan keeps offenders eligible for parole locked up an average of 2.5 years beyond their minimum sentence, according to Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.

“Keeping people an extra year or two and then letting them go anyway creates no gain to the public,” Levine said.

Gov. Rick Snyder is supporting the legislation, also putting him at odds with Schuette. The bill now goes to the Senate.

“This legislation jeopardizes the safety of Michigan citizens,” Schuette said in a Thursday statement. “The so-called ‘presumptive parole’ measure provides for the automatic and early release of violent criminals without the parole board determining the risk and safety dangers of violent criminals.”

This isn’t the first time Schuette has butted heads with a fellow Republicans over changing the state’s parole system.

In December, Schuette and law enforcement agencies helped torpedo similar legislation sponsored by former state Rep. Joe Haveman, a Holland Republican who sought to rein in corrections spending during his six years in the House.

No longer in the Legislature, Haveman continues to lobby for the legislation and took a veiled shot at the attorney general Thursday ahead of the House vote.

“Fear mongering is what got us to a $2 billion budget,” said Haveman, referencing the Department of Corrections’ annual budget.

Heise did not dispute the legislation could serve as a long-term cost-cutting measure. During his floor speech, he argued that Michigan’s lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenses have created a “gulag archipelago of prisons in Michigan” — a reference to the communist Soviet Union’s expansion of prisons and labor camps.

“We’re spending billions of dollars to put and keep people in prison, when we could be spending that money on our kids, on our roads or maybe even giving some of it back to the taxpayers,” Heise said. “But instead Michigan has become a national penal colony for thousands of people.”

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