Opinion: Keep reducing incarceration with parole reform

David Safavian and Diana Prichard

In recent years, Republicans and Democrats nationwide have united around criminal justice reforms. As President Donald Trump said of his administration's reform efforts, “America wins when citizens with a criminal record can contribute to their communities as law-abiding members of our society.”

Michigan has been a leader in enacting conservative criminal justice policy — reforms that make our state safer while reducing unnecessary and expensive incarceration. Lawmakers now have the opportunity to build on recent state advancements such as Clean Slate legislation by passing common-sense probation and parole legislation that creates a better pathway to redemption.

Grace, a local teenager on probation, was put in detention because she didn’t complete her schoolwork, the authors write.

This month, Michigan lawmakers will consider a package of bills — SB 1048SB 1050 and SB 1051 — with strong support on both sides of the aisle. These bills would promote public safety by ensuring people are held accountable for their crimes while incentivizing those on probation or parole to better themselves and leave the justice system behind.

With one out of every 40 adults in Michigan on probation or parole, it's critical to get this issue right.

The main problem is that many people on probation or parole end up incarcerated unnecessarily. On any given day nearly 1,500 Michigan residents are put behind bars for violating the terms of their supervision, which amounts to more than half of all prison admissions in the state. 

If people commit a crime, they should be held accountable. But many people under supervision are incarcerated for non-criminal “technical violations,” like missing an appointment with their parole officer. In one recent case, a local teenager on probation spent over two months in juvenile detention, not for re-offending, but because she didn’t complete her schoolwork.

Punishment for technical violations costs Michigan almost $60 million per year, and requires law enforcement to divert time and resources from addressing serious crimes.  

The probation and parole reforms under consideration would help address the problems with the system. The bills would reduce probation terms and cap jail penalties for technical violations. Judges would be given the flexibility to tailor probation and parole conditions to tfacts of each case, the public safety risk posed by the individual, and the needs of the community.

For example, if people commit a technical violation, they might receive an alternative punishment to incarceration such as community service. If, on the other hand, people fulfill their rehabilitation goals, like getting a GED or keeping a job, they can earn early release from supervision.

This approach promotes rehabilitation while reducing unnecessary incarceration. In doing so Michigan can save millions of dollars each year in wasteful spending that has no public safety benefit, while freeing up law enforcement to focus on the things that do make the state safer.

If the reforms being considered in Lansing sound familiar, it is because they borrow from ideas that have been proven to work around the country. The First Step Act, which was the signature criminal justice reform bill signed by Trump, incentivized incarcerated individuals to do the hard work of self-improvement.

By obtaining education and training, mental health and addiction treatment and life skills while in prison, people are less likely to be sent back. Similar to the First Step Act, Michigan’s recent enactment of Clean Slate legislation incentivizes good behavior by offering an expungement for those nonviolent individuals who stay on the straight and narrow. 

The probation reform pending in Lansing takes a similar approach. We can hold people accountable for technical violations without sending them back to prison. And we can encourage them to stay crime free by offering time off their probation period if they improve themselves. 

A side benefit is that the legislation would also save Michigan taxpayers almost $30 million at a time when COVID-19 has dented Michigan’s budget. Not only would the state be safer, we’d have more resources to direct to critical needs during our economic recovery.

Given these benefits, lawmakers should pass the bills before this year's legislative session ends. 

The reforms were recommended by the bipartisan Michigan Jail Task Force with support among prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the state.

While making our state safer, we can reduce wasteful spending by cutting down on unnecessary incarceration. 

David Safavian is general counsel of the American Conservative Union. He is an alumnus of the Detroit College of Law and a native of Grosse Ile. Diana Prichard is community engagement director of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan and a lifelong mid-Michigan resident.