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Crime reform bills deserve full debate

The Detroit News

State lawmakers are reviewing intriguing legislation focused on revamping local parole and probation systems so that those who commit minor crimes can be rehabilitated before they are convicted of an offense that sends them to prison.

The ultimate result, according to Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, is that over time Michigan’s huge prison population will be reduced, which will help decrease the bloated $2 billion budget of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

It sounds good, but legislators must make sure, as the old adage goes, they are not penny wise and pound foolish.

Haveman, one of the main backers of the four-bill package, is convinced they won’t be.

“My goal is to prevent people from going to prison in the first place,” the term-limited representative says. “This is not about releasing people early but being tougher on people early.”

Michigan’s prison population has been slowly declining, which Haveman admits was part of the impetus for his bills. The number of inmates incarcerated has dropped below 44,000, from a high of 51,554 in March 2007, which has helped moderate costs.

Haveman says most of the legislation is geared to helping local prosecutors and judges deal with minor offenders, particularly those on probation.

Guidelines are to be discussed that give local law enforcement officials and judges more discretion in handling probation violators.

The costs and details of the bills are “being worked through,” Haveman says.

Although he says the early release of prison inmates is not one of his goals, he admits the legislation includes bills addressing those released from state prisons.

Parole boards would still have the authority to release an inmate or deny parole, but the bills require the Corrections Department to make sure prisoners have the opportunity to reform themselves and correct their behavior.

Some law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Bill Schuette, have expressed concerns about the release of inmates. These reservations are legitimate and even if they are properly addressed in the bills, a discussion needs to be conducted to make sure parole guidelines err on the side of the citizen.

There have been too many heinous crimes committed by parolees.

Ari Adler, spokesperson for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, says the legislation has Bolger’s support and, like Haveman, notes that the perception that the bills are moving too quickly is wrong.

Adler says the reform proposals are based on a May study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which held discussions at a series of open meetings with judges, prosecutors and citizens around the state. The House is expected to vote on the legislation.

If the bills are as close to being complete as Haveman believes, lawmakers should be able to debate them fully in the lame duck session.

But legislators must make sure there are no loopholes that can be exploited by criminals. Public safety must always be top priority.