The Toledo Blade weighs in: Michigan needs to reform the parole review process for lifers
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  • on February 28, 2014 -

The Toledo Blade weighs in: Michigan needs to reform the parole review process for lifers

Locked Out

Editorial published by the Toledo Blade February, 24, 2014

For more than three decades, Michigan, Ohio, and most other states have engaged in a costly and futile race to incarcerate. It has quadrupled their prison populations and cost them hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with no demonstrable effect on crime.Ohio’s prison population exceeds 50,000 inmates and costs $1.5 billion a year. With roughly 44,000 inmates, Michigan spends $2 billion a year on prisons, more than it spends on higher education.

In recent years, both states have done a better job of managing their prison populations. They have enacted limited sentencing reforms and reduced recidivism rates with re-entry programs that help ex-offenders successfully adjust to life after prison. Michigan’s prison population dropped significantly between 2007 and 2012. During that period, crime in the state also dropped by 17 percent.

But both Ohio and Michigan could do much more. Ohio needs more community options and sanctions for probation violators, who make up 25 percent — roughly 5,100 cases a year — of the state’s prison intake.

Most of those who return to prison in Ohio are nonviolent offenders who did not commit new crimes, but rather broke probation rules. Local programs and services, including residential treatment, would enable more probation violators to remain in the community under supervision, at a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to incarcerate each of them.

In Michigan, an unaccountable and unchecked state parole board is holding hundreds of inmates who are eligible for parole far longer than their sentencing judges intended. Average lengths of prison stays in Michigan are among the nation’s highest — more than double those in Ohio.

A nonprofit advocacy group in Michigan, Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, estimates that taxpayers would have saved more than $500 million if the 15,000 prisoners released by the state in 2009 had served sentences that equaled the national average.

This month, the citizens alliance reported that Michigan holds 850 parole-eligible prisoners who are serving so-called life sentences. Many of these lifers are sick and elderly, costing the state millions of dollars in medical treatment.

More than half are 55 or older. Of the 613 inmates who are 50 or older, 491 have served at least 25 years, including 240 who have served 35 years or more.

Changes made since 1992 — well after most of the current parole-eligible lifers were sentenced — permit the parole board to deny paroles without interviewing prisoners, assessing their risk, or even providing reasons. As it stands, the board is required to do only a paper review of parole-eligible lifers every five years.

That’s especially egregious because in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, judges sentenced offenders to life with parole, expecting they would have a reasonable shot at release after serving 10 years. But in the 1990s, the parole board in effect adopted a “life means life” policy that ran counter to the intent of the sentencing judges, as many of them have said.

“It’s matter of basic fairness,” said Barbara Levine of the citizens alliance. “They changed the rules after the game was played.” Parole board decisions in Michigan are no longer subject to judicial review to ensure that they are consistent and fair.

A bill before the Michigan House would fix at least some of these problems and should become law. Among other things, it would require the parole board to interview parole-eligible lifers personally every two years.

It would retain the power of original sentencing judges to veto a parole hearing, while eliminating the veto power of successor judges. That’s reasonable: Successor judges know little, if anything, about an offender.

Parole-eligible lifers have the lowest rates of recidivism of any group of prisoners. The changes called for in the bill would not, in themselves, release one such lifer. Even so, the citizens alliance estimates that at least half of the 850 parole-eligible lifers in Michigan could be safely released under a more-accountable parole process, saving the state $17 million a year.

Nearly 30 former Michigan corrections officials, who served in Republican and Democratic administrations, are urging state lawmakers to reform the parole process for parole-eligible lifers. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Find it online:  Locked out – Toledo Blade editorial

Download a PDF: Locked out — www.toledoblade

 

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