Editorial: Michigan must reduce prison population
Allowing more inmates out on parole could lessen corrections costs, but safety must be a priority
There’s little doubt lowering the number of inmates in Michigan’s prison would reduce costs, which is one of the goals of Gov. Rick Snyder’s criminal justice initiative. Yet early release programs are hard to run well and high recidivism rates have caused most professionals in the field to tread cautiously when talking about changing the parole system.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, attempts to address the governor’s call for smarter use of jails and prisons. The idea is not new. Last year similar legislation died because of opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette and local prosecutors. Even now, Heise’s bill does not have the support of that group.
His legislation is in response to a study by the national Council for State Governments, which concluded “presumptive parole” could help Michigan reduce its prison population and consequently its cost as well as recidivism if it released qualified prisoners after their minimum term.
Under Heise’s bill, a multifaceted parole guideline number system would be instituted. Inmates would earn points for good behavior but get negative points depending upon the seriousness of their crimes. Those who scored a “high probability” of success if they were paroled would qualify not for an early release but for a release after serving their minimum sentences.
Their sentence, prior criminal record, mental health 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, force, injury and sex offenses. The bill does not apply to prisoners who score average probability, low probability, or those with life sentences. Ultimately, the final decisions rest with the parole board.
The bill is based on the statistic that Michigan prisoners serve about 127 percent of their minimum sentence.
But statistics can be misleading.
Critics leery of presumptive parole quote their own numbers. Information from Schuette’s office notes about 70 percent of the state’s prisoners were sentenced for violent crimes and 90 percent of those convicted felons were first placed in diversion programs.
As Monroe Prosecuting Attorney Bill Nichols, a member of the state Prosecuting Attorneys Association Board, says, “Most of those people in prison are those who should be in prison.”
Opponents of the bill say their main concern is public safety. They don’t want to see inmates paroled too soon. They also want to protect the victims and give them a voice in the reform process.
D.J. Hilson, Muskegon county prosecutor and a member of Snyder’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission, said the parole reform has been studied for the past year and half and prosecutors will work with lawmakers to craft appropriate legislation.
“Certainly, we hope that whatever reforms and changes are made, that we’re going to make sure people who are in the prison system come out better than when they went in,” Hilson says.
The House legislation is a good starting point for more discussion on this topic, and it seeks a compromise for all those involved, including inmates and victims.