Heise: Presumptive parole is safe, smart justice

Rep. Kurt Heise
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By now, you’ve probably read or heard about the notion of presumptive parole, a proposed reform that would give parole boards the directive to — under their supervision and control — grant minimum-sentence parole to low-danger individuals who meet a series of comprehensive requirements for release.

Now, there are a handful of career politicians who would have you recoil at the practice of releasing inmates at their earliest date of eligibility. They would use anecdotes and fear to preserve one of the country’s most over-zealous prison systems in the belief that the longer prisons hold an offender, the safer you, the public, will be.

This is where we arrive at the major philosophical disagreement between advocates of presumptive parole and status-quo opponents. The “tough-on-crime,” harsh-punishment approach invokes the image of an officer or politician who crusades against the dangers lurking on the streets. I admit, it’s a powerful image and, what’s more, it’s an attractive campaign angle. That’s why a Pew Center report found that Michigan’s prisoners are incarcerated for 17 months longer than the national average, and almost three years longer for those who committed assault.

It’s made a real impact. Thirty years ago, our prison population was around 15,000. Now, that number is 44,000. Michigan has a diverse population of offenders, ages 18 through the 90s, of all different backgrounds, convicted of crimes from the financial to the physical. At that same time 30 years ago, our Corrections budget was $230 million. Now, that number crests to $2 billion. That’s 20 percent of the General Fund that goes to concrete for prison walls instead of city roads or school buildings.

But the money is worth it, right? A more robust corrections system, the safer we are. It’s an easy, seemingly logical argument—which is not at all backed by the data. See, what masquerades as justice in fact muddles and obscures the true purpose of the correction system: rehabilitation and a safer society. To achieve that purpose, we have to focus on the facts. That’s where we arrive at what many call “evidence-based justice.”

The Council of State Governments found no significant difference in the rates of recidivism, or reoffending, between inmates released around their minimum sentence, and those who remained longer in the system. The title of that report carries the point well; “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms.”

In Michigan, specifically, the 2009 parole board reconsidered thousands of people who had served their minimum sentences but been denied release. Alarmists — like those who oppose presumptive parole — predicted a crime wave when 2,000 more inmates were released, but grew silent when it was found that recidivism after the fact was 15 percent lower than normal. In the same time frame, those who had been convicted of a violent offense reoffended at a rate of less than 1 out of every 100 parolees.

That’s data. That’s evidence. And it’s indicative of our big corrections problem. We’re building a stone-walled, iron-barred state on top of a skewed belief that we’re protecting ourselves.

We’re not. In fact, we’re spending our tax dollars with appalling inefficiency to keep low-risk, highly-eligible parolees in chains “just because.” These could be productive members of society. They could contribute to the economy.

That’s not a rose-colored picture — the reforms we passed are safety-oriented. They do not change parole eligibility, nor do they put parole decisions on “autopilot” as some would have you believe.

A parole board that has objective reasons for denial to an otherwise eligible inmate, such as threats to harm a victim, or DNA evidence linking the inmate to an unsolved crime, can and will do so. That’s not “auto pilot” as the detractors would call it. It’s informed, cautious, and safety-positive parole.

And isn’t that how it should work?

State Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, is chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee.

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