News and analysis from The Center for Michigan • http://thecenterformichigan.net
©2015 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at http://bridgemi.com

Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/04/guest-column-parolable-lifers-are-safe-to-release-expensive-to-keep/

Public sector

Guest column: Parolable lifers are safe to release; expensive to keep

By Paul D. Reingold/University of Michigan Law School

In the public debate over how to save money in corrections, one group is consistently overlooked — the roughly 850 “parolable lifers” who are eligible for release. Paroling just half of them could save about $16 million a year.

And the risk to the public would be almost zero.

In Michigan, serious offenses short of first-degree murder are punishable by parolable life or a term of years — whichever the sentencing judge chooses. By statute, parolable lifers have to serve a minimum of either 10 or 15 years, depending on when they committed the crime. 

Paul D. Reingold is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School and was lead counsel in the case of Foster-Bey v. Booker, challenging the post-1992 drop in lifer paroles as a violation of the ex post facto clause.

As a practical matter, for decades lifers who behaved well in prison would be released in about 15 years. Judges, Michigan Department of Corrections administrators and parole board members expected lifers to be evaluated just like people who committed similar crimes, but received sentences of 15-30 or 20-40 years. As Frank Buchko, a parole board member from 1962-1974, said:  “The fact that someone was a lifer … had no bearing on the case. The only question was whether or not the person would be a threat to society if released.”   

Parole policies changed dramatically in 1992, after the board changed from civil service to political appointees. From 1992 to 2005, the board followed the mantra that “life means life.” It released almost no lifers.

Michigan parole rates 1990-2011

Then its policies loosened up some. Since mid-2005, the board has released 101 parolable lifers (not counting lifers imprisoned for drug crimes). Of the 101 paroled, just two have been returned to prison for technical violations, and one has been returned for committing retail fraud. This recidivism rate of 3 percent is consistent with the historical data. 

Parole-eligible lifers tend to share a number of characteristics.

They are much older than the average prisoner. Although nearly 100 were younger than 18 when they com­mitted their offenses, and more than 200 were under 21, their median age is now around 55. The 700 or so who became eligible for parole after 10 years (because of the date when they committed their crime) have now served, on average, about 30 years.

The parolable lifers are not “the worst of the worst.”  Although their crimes were serious, many were situational. About half the lifers are serving their first prison term.  Most have excellent institutional records.  The fact that they have served far longer than thousands of people who committed comparable offenses, but who were given term-of-years sentences, is often not what their sentencing judges intended. 

It appears that the parole board has once again lost interest in releasing more than a hand­ful of non-drug parolable lifers. From April 2011 – March 2012, it has chosen to proceed in just nine cases. 

The board’s lack of urgency is not the only hurdle parolable lifers face. Since 1992, the board only has to review lifers every five years. No interview is required: a single board member can peruse the file and indicate “no interest” in proceeding. 

When the board does decide to proceed, the sentencing judge or that judge’s successor can stop the process with a written objection. The judge does not have to state any reason for objecting and the decision cannot be appealed. In the last five years, 39 lifers have had their paroles vetoed — 38 by successor judges who had no involvement in the original case.  

The parolable lifers are a unique population that has been whipsawed by changes in policy, practice, and personnel.  No matter how much they have earned a second chance, constant turnover on the parole board makes it difficult for them to get consistent consideration. As they age and develop health issues, they are becoming increasingly costly to house. Each decision to continue a lifer for five years costs taxpayers about $200,000. Fairness, good sense, and economics all suggest that paroling more lifers is a sound strategy for reducing prison spending

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. AMF

    “Risk is Zero”……..grandiose statement that would have to be proven ‘after the fact’. I can’t quite get my arms around it.

    1. MJB

      Totally agree with you. However, that is not a statement that I saw in the article. Is from another source?

  2. Margaret Kanost

    I would like to see the recommendations of Prof. Reingold be given serious consideration by the State of Michigan.

  3. Susan

    This is a reasonable proposal but it does not include the rest of the discussion. What would become of the person after release? In today’s economy what is the chance that someone age 55 or older with a prison record and no prior work experience can hope to find a job? He would not be eligible for social security or have any retirement savings. What about health coverage? Do we just toss a parolee onto the street or do we invest in support so that he can build a life?

    Justice would be served by improving the parole process, but let’s not count on saving lots of money.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Currently on Bridge

An Earth Day pitch: When you hang up the phone for good, toss it the right way

Michigan’s roads affect everyone, so a 'yes' vote on Proposal 1 makes sense

‘Diplomacy Begins Here’ conference aims to illuminate international relations

What NOT to post on Facebook: Jokes about prison rape, when you’re in charge of preventing prison rape

A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison

Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

‘New fish’ ‒ One teen inmate’s account of alleged sexual assault

Early learning summit in June could impact Michigan’s children

Money Smart Week: Be penny wise, and pound savvier

Plan B or no Plan B, here’s what happens if road proposal fails

The political tale behind the selling of Proposal 1

A Bridge primer: Untangling the pothole promise of Proposal 1

Who supports, and opposes, Proposal 1

Let's rebuild Michigan through its greatest asset: its water

Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

Coalition supporting Detroit schools a step in the city’s road back

Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

A cull is a kill, and it’s an overreaction to deer ‘problem’

Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

For one Detroit mom, a complicated path to employment

Detroit by the numbers – the truth about poverty

Michigan should require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten

Where in the world is the Center for Michigan?

After two years, hard to call ACA anything but a success

Bridge’s Academic State Champs emphasizes all the wrong measurements

A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties

Up North, isolation impedes health care for seniors

Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

Not bigger government, but better services when Community Health and Human Services merge

Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

In northern counties, workers and business find each other lacking

Hidden poverty stalks a Pure Michigan setting

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Postcard: When elk is for dinner

Postcard: Luxe life at Bay Harbor reflects changing economy

Postcard: A roof and a bed

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.