Our editorial: Good behavior paroles will cut costs

Fairness alone would argue that, in most cases, an inmate with good behavior should be set free on completing the minimum sentence. That’s not always the case in Michigan, and it’s helping fuel the state’s $2 billion a year in corrections spending.

A new bill would establish a “presumptive parole” system in Michigan to move so-called model inmates out of prison after completing their minimum term. It was passed overwhelmingly by the House, and should get Senate approval as well. Senators should act just as decisively.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, is in response to Gov. Rick Snyder’s call for smarter use of jails and prison cells. Last year, similar legislation died because of opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette and local prosecutors.

The new bill is opposed by the same parties. They should reconsider their stance. If Michigan is going to pay for road repairs out of the General Fund and cope with increased Medicaid expansion costs, it has to save money, and the corrections budget is the most likely place to find it.

A study by the national Council for State Governments concluded presumptive parole could help Michigan reduce its prison population, costs and recidivism rate. Currently, Michigan prisoners serve 127 percent of their minimum sentence.

Under Heise’s bill, inmates would earn points for good behavior on a sliding scale based on the seriousness of their crimes. Those who scored a “high probability” of success if they were paroled would qualify not for release only after serving their minimum sentences. There would be no early releases.

Prior criminal record, mental health status and statistical risk are all part of the final score. An offender receives negative points for aggravating factors such as the use of a weapon in their crime, violence and sex offenses. The bill does not apply to prisoners serving life sentences, though perhaps it should. Ultimately, the final release decisions rest with the parole board.

Heise says the bill will not put dangerous felons back into society.

“The bill has numerous safeguards,” he says. “You have to jump through a lot of hoops.”

He projects the legislation, within 10 years, will reduce the prison population by 3,200 and save about $75 to $85 million a year annually.

Barbara Levine, associate director, research and policy for CAPPS (Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending), says the recidivism concerns from opponents of the bill are overblown.

A CAPPS report released last year found that of 820 people paroled after serving time for murder or manslaughter between 2007 and 2010, just two returned to prison for a new homicide. Of 4,109 people who had been serving for a sex offense, just 32 returned to prison for a repeat sex crime.

A study by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates recidivism declines considerably with the age of a parolee. The rate of return to prison within three years for those who were 28-44 was 30.2 percent. For those who were 45 or older it was 16.9 percent.

The most effective way to reduce the corrections budget is to reduce the number of people behind bars. This bill should be passed, along with other measures to cut the prison population.