At a press conference on Oct. 12, sheriffs and prosecutors from multiple counties joined Attorney General Bill Schuette to stand united in opposition to Michigan House Bill 4138. The proposed legislation would offer presumptive release to certain incarcerated offenders. Some of these elected officials are well intentioned in their opposition. Others are just seeking to get their faces in front of the voters, jumping in front of the cameras at every opportunity to remind their constituents that they are tough on crime. There are times, however, when appearing tough on crime requires turning a blind eye to reality.
The opponents of this bill want people to believe that the legislation will, in essence, throw open the doors of our prisons to allow violent offenders back on the streets. They share stories of parolees who have been released only to commit new violent offenses, fostering a fresh brand paranoia. They ignore the fact that the people who truly pose a threat to the community, the violent offenders, will be required to continue through the normal parole process. Those offenders will not qualify for this presumption that the statute seeks to create. Their concerns are unfounded.
The legislation presumes that certain individuals are not a menace to society and, absent substantial and compelling reasons to depart from the parole guidelines, those individuals shall be granted release after serving their minimum sentence. How does this legislation ensure that we aren’t throwing violent offenders back on the street until they have served an appropriate sentence? Well, in order to fall into this category of presumptive release, an individual still must pass through three levels of scrutiny.
The first level of scrutiny occurs when the Circuit Court judge sets the defendant’s minimum sentence. The court is aware of the details of the defendant’s offense, their criminal history, their violent nature or lack of, and the risk that they pose to the community. Those offenders who have committed violent offenses and who pose a risk to the community will undoubtedly receive lengthier minimum sentences than nonviolent offenders, ensuring that they will remain in prison longer.
The second level of scrutiny occurs when the minimum sentence for a prisoner has been served. Michigan Department of Corrections Policy Directive sets a framework for giving each potential parolee a guideline score. Points are added and subtracted in eight different categories that take into account the violent nature of the offense, their prior criminal history, behavior since the time of sentencing, participation in rehabilitative programs, etcetera. Each parolee is put into one of three categories: those who are presumed to have a high probability of parole, those who have an average probability, and those who have a low probability. When the parole board receives the file of someone who fits into the high probability category, they know that this is an individual that they should probably grant parole unless they have some sort of specific information that would suggest otherwise.
This legislation would grant presumptive release only to those individuals who are presumed by the guidelines to have a high probability for parole as determined by the parole guidelines. An offender who commits a violent offense, or who has an extended criminal history, or who poses a high statistical risk, will not likely fit into that category. Those offenders will have to continue through the normal parole process. In essence, the presumption only applies to those who are already likely to be released under the current parole system.
The third level of scrutiny occurs after the parole guidelines are scored and it is determined that an offender fits within the presumption. The presumption does not give that offender an automatic right to be paroled. Instead, the parole board must still review the file and determine if there are substantial and compelling reasons not to grant release. These reasons may include exceptionally poor behavior in prison, evidence of substantial harm to the victim that was not available at the time of sentencing, threatened harm to another person if the individual is released, pending felony charges, or if the prisoner has been linked to an unsolved criminal violation. If the parole board finds that a substantial and compelling reason exists, then parole may still be denied.
Only after passing through these all three of these levels of scrutiny is an offender released under the new legislation. The purpose of this legislation is not necessarily to release more prisoners but rather, to streamline the process and quell the backlog of cases. These non-violent offenders, who have already been earmarked as likely to be released on parole, are being held longer than necessary simply because the parole board is backlogged. The result is millions of dollars in additional funds going to incarcerate individuals unnecessarily.
What will this legislation do for the state? The Michigan Department of Corrections estimates that the legislation could reduce our prison population by 3,200 in five years and save $75 million annually. The state already spends over $2 billion each year on corrections.
Furthermore, it is no mystery that rehabilitative efforts are better achieved through services available in the community and not in the prison system. These low level offenders are not serving life sentences. They will be released from prison at some point. The best chance of ensuring that they do not reoffend is to get them into rehabilitative programs as quickly as possible. That being the case, does it make sense to keep these offenders penned up with the violent offenders rather than putting them where they can receive the rehabilitative services that will prevent them from reoffending? Let’s take the money that we would have spent incarcerating them unnecessarily and spend it on rehabilitative services or on vocational programs. Perhaps the money could be reallocated to help create new educational opportunities in our children’s schools that will in turn help to prevent crime in the future. Or, would we rather just continue to spend the money incarcerating individuals who don’t need it just because the parole board can’t keep up with the backlog of cases?
In short, don’t fall for the political subterfuge that takes place at these press conferences. Your legislators are not going to put your community in danger with this legislation. They are doing exactly what you elected them to do: to cut unnecessary spending and reallocate the money where it can provide the greatest benefit.