Editorial: Pass parole reform bill

The Detroit News

One piece of last minute business that should be tidied up in the legislative lame duck session this week is passage of a bipartisan parole reform bill. The measure has already passed the House with solid support from both Republicans and Democrats, and the Senate should approve it and send it on to Gov. Rick Snyder.

There’s little reason for this bill to be stalled, except that some members of the law enforcement community have spoken out against the potential dangers of releasing non-violent convicts before they serve their maximum term.

Still, it is backed by a wide range of faith and business leaders. And it’s the right thing to do.

Called the Safe and Smart Parole Reform bill, it’s sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, and would make the process of paroling prisoners fairer and more consistent.

It would bring clear definition to the “substantial and compelling” clause in state law that allows the parole board to deny release even to a prisoner who meets the current criteria of serving the minimum sentence and scoring low on a risk assessment.

The board now can define “clear and substantial” as it chooses. That leads to a good deal of subjectivity and keeps low risk prisoners behind bars longer than necessary — at taxpayer expense.

The reform would not affect those serving life sentences.

The reasons a low risk parole can be denied, as defined by the bill, would include:

■A prisoner has an unacceptable prison conduct score.

■There’s evidence that wasn’t available at the time of sentencing that the prisoner presents a risk of harm to another person.

■The prisoner has a pending felony charge.

There are other specified reasons for denying parole. But, basically, a prisoner who has behaved well, served the minimum sentence and presents no apparent risk to the public will be released.

That’s the very definition of common sense corrections reform.

The Michigan Department of Corrections estimates the reform could, after five years, save the state $75 million a year by cutting 3,200 prison beds out of the system.

That’s a good start toward the 25 percent reduction in the $2 billion corrections budget necessary to make Michigan competitive with other states and allow it to address other spending priorities, such as infrastructure.

Michigan on average keeps prisoners locked up longer than its peer states. Longer terms, unless accompanied by education and training, are not effective in reducing crime rates.

There is never a guarantee that even a seemingly risk-free convict will not return to crime once released from prison. But these inmates are going to be released someday, and keeping them in longer is not proven to reduce recidivism.

If some of the money saved could go toward preparing convicts to live successful lives outside prison, it would do more to protect the public than prolonging their release.

Lawmakers should pass this bill and let the new Legislature in January move on to other priorities.