By Melissa Anders
LANSING — A group of former corrections officials have called on Michigan to reform the parole review process for prisoners serving life sentences.
The group, which includes 27 former corrections officials and one current warden, said the system has unfairly changed over the years to prevent low-risk, rehabilitated parole-eligible prisoners from earning their freedom. Relatively few prisoners who are serving life sentences and are eligible for parole end up getting released.
All prisoners “should have a fair and equitable opportunity to make a case to the parole board,” said Gary Gabry, who served as parole board chairman in the 1990s and is now a defense attorney.
The Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said the parole board is “fairly and appropriately considering all of these cases for parole release.”
But the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending contends the process doesn’t give prisoners enough face time with the parole board, and they’re not assessed for risk in the same manner as other prisoners or given an explanation of why the board doesn’t want to take their case.
CAPPS on Wednesday released two reports on the issue along with the statement from the former corrections officials. It estimates there are about 850 parole-eligible prisoners serving non-drug-related life sentences. If half of them were paroled, the state would save about $17 million a year by not having to pay for their incarceration, according to the group.
The group offered several proposals to address the issue, including banning successor judges from vetoing paroles. It wants to require the parole board to consider lifers based on the same criteria as other prisoners and to interview them when they first become eligible for parole and every two years afterward. They also want the board to explain why it decides not to hold a public hearing and allow prisoners to appeal decisions.
“None of these recommendations would require the release of any particular prisoner,” said Barbara Levine, CAPPS associate director for policy and research. “They are all about improving the process so that decisions are more consistent, objective and transparent, and ultimately more cost-effective.”
More than three-quarters of the current parole-eligible lifers were convicted of second-degree murder or first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Other crimes include armed robbery, assault with intent to murder and kidnapping.
“When most of today’s parole-eligible lifers were sentenced, it was by judges who believed both a life sentence and a 40-year minimum term meant release within 16 years,” according to a CAPPS report, noting that policies and attitudes have since changed, making it less common for lifers to be released.
Judges have historically known they’re not required to hand down life sentences in certain cases, said MDOC’s Marlan. More than 80 percent of the time, judges end up giving a term of years instead of a life sentence, he said.
“I think it’s pretty clear when a judge hands down a life sentence that they meant life, that they made a conscious decision for the parole board to handle it that way they handle it,” Marlan said, adding that while parole is handled differently for lifers, it doesn’t preclude appropriate people from getting released.
State Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, supports CAPPS’ proposals, saying they’d insert transparency into a system that’s “opaque at best and discretionary and random at worst.”
He co-sponsored House Bill 4809 that includes several of the recommendations. But the bill is part of a legislative package addressing juvenile lifers, which has taken a back seat to a Senate bill that received final legislative approval on Wednesday.