Michigan prison sentence reforms gain momentum

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News
Prisoners at Michigan’s Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility near Ionia in 2011. Legislators want to reduce prison populations through reform.

State lawmakers are poised to act on a legislative package that would reduce some prison sentences, making it potentially the biggest issue — besides a road tax increase — they may consider when they return from a two-week recess.

The package of bills calls for a state commission to adjust tough sentencing policies adopted in 1998 that crowded prisons and sharply increased corrections spending. The legislation is aimed at reducing crime while reining in the state's $2 billion prison budget through sentencing, parole and probation reforms. It has moved quickly toward a House vote in the lame-duck session.

The vision is for the number of prisoners to decline over time, and for all released prisoners to receive supervision.

The number of inmates incarcerated by the state has dropped below 44,000 from a high of 51,554 in March 2007, and cost increases have moderated because of policy changes and the contracting out of some prison services to private companies.

But Republican Rep. Joe Haveman of Holland, point man for the proposed reforms, said he sees potential for even more downsizing of the sprawling prison system.

Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns "has done a fantastic job of getting at the low-hanging fruit through policies and cost savings ... but you can't save your way to a low-cost prison system," Haveman. "The only way you can get more long-term savings is to close a prison."

Attorney General Bill Schuette said he has "grave concerns" with some key proposals in the bills that he feels could "open the door to parole for some violent offenders at the earliest possible date."

The legislation is getting a boost from House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Marshall Republican who over the weekend shared on his Facebook page a column by GOP former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich that lauded Michigan's sentencing reform package and suggested it was "getting it right on crime."

"We understand there are some concerns about the bills as they came out of committee," Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said, "but that Rep. Haveman will continue to work hard on this issue and hopefully reach a point where we can address those concerns in the full House when we return in December."

Schuette, re-elected this month, issued his criticism after he testified on the bills, which Haveman said still are works in progress and can be revised.

A new state commission would examine criminal sentencing guidelines and could ease prison terms imposed for some crimes — but Haveman said it's not the overriding goal. The legislation sets up a framework for parole, probation and inmate rehabilitation programs that do more to keep early offenders from becoming major criminals and former inmates from committing new crimes.

The reform proposals result from a May study by the national Council of State Governments Justice Center, which held discussions at a series of open meetings with judges, prosecutors and citizens around the state. Haveman acknowledged it's a challenge for lawmakers to handle the legislation so late in the year, but said it has long been discussed.

Last week, he moved the bills through the House Appropriations Committee he chairs, and they are poised for a House vote when the Legislature reconvenes after Thanksgiving. House approval would send them to the Senate during the so-called lame-duck session in December, when term-limited lawmakers like Haveman cast their final votes before leaving office.

As attorney general, Schuette automatically would be among state officials serving on the proposed sentencing guidelines commission. But his spokeswoman, Joy Yearout, said Schuette is more concerned with parts of the package that seem to ease parole and probation policies.

The proposed probation reforms, he said, would "reduce the time offenders serve under court supervision, increasing the threat to public safety."

Prosecutors have similar concerns about parole and probation.

"We want to make sure, certainly, victim concerns are being taken care of as well as public safety in general," said DJ Hilson, Muskegon County prosecutor and board member of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

"In the language of the bills, we're trying as much as we can to make sure that those who are violent stay behind bars and those who have recognized that they made a mistake and have changed are given that second chance in society."

Some key parts of the legislative package include:

■A Justice Policy Commission that would re-examine sentencing and release policies for felonies, a similar task as that of the Michigan Sentencing and Guidelines Commission that operated from 1998-2002. Any changed sentence the commission recommended to lawmakers would have to be "proportionate to the seriousness of the offense and the offender's prior criminal record," according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of the bills.

The commission would send a report to the Legislature about sentencing guideline proposals as well as how to make sure sentences are proportionate to crimes, rehabilitate prisoners and eliminate variations in prison terms handed out around the state for the same crime.

■A policy that state prisoners nearing the end of their maximum sentences would have to be paroled no later than nine months before the prison term ended. Under a bolstered state program for inmates finishing their sentences, the parolee would receive intense supervision in a program proven to lead to more a successful transition to life outside of prison.

■Requiring parole boards to take part in programs that address behavioral, educational and social needs. Parole boards also would have to release prisoners when they reached their minimum sentence if they were rated to have a high probability of not committing more crimes.

Savings from the changes are not estimated to be quick. They would result from a drop in the need for prison beds as the number of re-offenders decreased over perhaps 10-15 years, Haveman said.

Haveman said he wants wiser policies to reduce the number of people in the corrections system — more than 100,000 when parolees and probationers also are counted — but shares Schuette's concerns: "I want safe communities, fewer criminals, less crime."