Editorial: Senate passes smart criminal justice reforms

The Detroit News

Just before summer recess, the Senate approved a 22-bill package designed to reform the state’s criminal justice system, with particular focus on probation and parole policies. These bills would set Michigan on a good path toward better use of corrections funding, and they would reduce excessive prison time.

“I can’t underestimate how important this (issue) is,” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, chief architect behind the package, on the Senate floor after the package passed.

He’s right. The state spends about $2 billion on corrections annually, some of which is wasted on imprisoning offenders who could likely otherwise be rehabilitated with better programs.

Making these changes can drastically decrease the rate of Michigan prisoners who are parole or probation violators, which, currently at 50 percent, is 20 percent higher than the 30 percent national average.

The bipartisan legislation would limit incarceration to a maximum of 30 days for probationers who commit up to five technical violations and would allow courts to reduce probation length for good behavior.

A separate bill would house 18- to 22-year-old prisoners separately from adults and create a tailored program to serve the unique needs of that age group, with the hope of creating better outcomes for individuals who might be at high risk for future incarceration.

Other bills would expedite commutation hearings for medically frail prisoners from 400 to 90 days and create a new supervised sanctions program for parolees.

Updates would also be made to an existing Swift and Sure Probation Sanctions Program. It would be expanded and reclassified as a specialty court, and support services would be added to the state’s most populated counties for full implementation of the program there.

Additionally, a Parole Sanction Certainty Program similar to the Swift and Sure Sanctions Probation Program would be created to allow parolees the same opportunities as probationers and offer assistance toward completing their parole.

More of a technical change, a Senate resolution would add “and Rehabilitation” to the name of the Department of Corrections. A small change, it would be important to illustrate that the focus is on reintegrating inmates into society and encouraging their rehabilitation.

These reforms are sorely needed, and the time is right to make them.

The House has also passed significant criminal justice reforms, mostly focused on juvenile offenders and presumptive parole programs.

But the Senate package is comprehensive, and offers ideas that have proven to be best practices in other states.

These kinds of rehabilitation programs offer offenders the best chance at getting out of prison and regaining a life, and the state should reinvest dollars spent on prison on other criminal justice areas that offer the greatest benefit for society at large.