WUOMFM

"Presumptive parole" bill would help Michigan reduce its prison population

Oct 13, 2015

Earlier this month, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill designed to save the state money and allow some people to salvage their lives by making it easier for prisoners who are no longer a threat to society to get out of prison on parole.

This bill makes a vast amount of sense, and is being supported by responsible and intelligent conservatives like State Representative Kurt Heise of Plymouth Township, its Republican sponsor, and Governor Snyder. 

Michigan is drowning financially in our huge and bloated corrections system.

Back in 1982, there were 13,000 state prisoners. That's ballooned to 43,000 now.

Back in 1982, there were 13,000 state prisoners. That’s ballooned to 43,000 now.

Those locked up include elderly cons in their 80s and others whose chances of reoffending are close to zero. We have a higher proportion of our population behind bars than surrounding states, and ours serve, on average, longer sentences.

Our prison system now costs us more than $2 billion a year.

We need to lower that, and this bill promises a responsible start.

Unfortunately, it has a terrible name – the “presumptive parole” bill. And that has helped unscrupulous politicians to frighten people into thinking it would force the system to automatically release hordes of vicious rapists and murderers.

The truth is that it would do nothing of the kind.

Yesterday, a group of prosecutors and county sheriffs held a press conference to denounce the bill. Now, I understand where they are coming from. They spend their lives catching dangerous scumbags and trying to send them to prison.

You can’t blame them for being a bit paranoid about letting people out.

However, it isn’t clear if all of them understood what this bill would do. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard indicated he’d favor something that develops “a model for predictive behavior.”

Well, this bill in fact does do that.

CAPPS, the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, is a non-profit and non-partisan outfit that wants to save Michigan millions by sensibly reducing the number of state prisoners. Yesterday, they released an excellent checklist of facts about the bill the House passed, HB 4138, which I think everyone concerned with public policy should read.

As it points out, this bill does not provide for the automatic release of anybody. The parole board will still have complete power to deny parole to anyone if it has “objective, verified reasons to believe they pose a current risk.”

What this bill would do is compel enforcement of the current guidelines, which say prisoners eligible for parole should be released unless there are “substantial and compelling reasons” not to.

What’s been happening, according to CAPPS, is that parole boards have been ignoring the guidelines and keeping prisoners locked up who statistics and psychological profiles show have less than a 5% chance of reoffending.

CAPPS estimates that includes about 1,900 inmates in Michigan today. That costs us, by my calculation, roughly $65 million a year.

Yes, a few parolees may commit new crimes. Some released under the current system do. But the only way to totally prevent crime would be to lock everybody up, all the time.

If we sensibly start to limit that to only those we have reason to fear, we might someday have enough money to educate our kids and fix the roads.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.