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Debate Continues Over Early Release for Prisoners in Michigan
In light of Michigan's current financial challenges, some have proposed early release from prison for certain nonviolent offenders as a way to trim the state's overburdened budget.

This past January, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm suggested that the state begin an early prison release program for certain nonviolent offenders as a way to trim the state's overburdened budget. While the proposal received support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, it also received considerable opposition from law enforcement officials, state prosecutors and the public.

Currently, Michigan's prison system houses approximately 47,000 inmates. These inmates cost the state's taxpayers more than $2 billion per year. In fact, it is estimated that Michigan spends upwards of $10,000 more per prisoner than is spent in the federal system. The fact that Michigan has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and keeps inmates in prison longer on average than other states explains some of the reasons for these high costs.

Given the controversy over instituting an early release program, the state legislature has not yet passed any legislation on the matter. One piece of legislation suggested early in 2009 would have made the prisoner release program only applicable to those prisoners who had served 120% of their minimum sentence. Those who qualified also would have been subject to approval by the parole board, which could deny early release to those deemed to pose a "very high risk" of recidivism. Additionally, only nonviolent offenders would have been eligible. Those serving life sentences for homicide, violent sex crimes, kidnapping, armed robbery and other felonies could not seek early release.

Rather than waiting for legislation authorizing early release to be passed, the Governor took action to increase the number of prisoners granted parole by adding 5 more people to the parole board, bringing the total number to 15. This addition has helped increase the state's parole numbers, but has not resulted in enough cost savings for the state.

Another means to increase the number of parolees under consideration is paroling more prisoners once they reach their earliest release date (ERD). The ERD is the date when prisoners have completed the minimum sentence under the state's sentencing guidelines. It is estimated that there are 11,000 prisoners who have reached their ERDs and could be eligible for parole.

Other measures that have been discussed to decrease the overall prison population include:

  • Stop returning parolees to prison for technical parole violations, like missing curfews
  • Move prisoners who are serving maximum sentences into a community supervision program 9 months before their max-out dates
  • Offer good time credits to prisoners for good behavior; currently Michigan has a "truth in sentencing law" that eliminated good time credits and requires all prisoners to serve at least the minimum sentence

Michigan is not the only state considering adopting an early release program in order to cut state expenses. California, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia and New York are just some of the states that are either considering similar proposals or already have authorized early release for some prisoners.

Opposition to Early Release

Those opposed to the early release program include state prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials as well as victim advocate groups. They argue that the state should cut its spending on each prisoner rather than release people who have been convicted of crimes back into the community prematurely. They also argue that the state should spend more money on efforts to curb crime, like adding more police officers. In recent years, Michigan has decreased the number of state police officers and scaled back funding to local sheriff's departments and local police.

Those opposed to the early release programs also are concerned that the state government is willing to endanger the public's safety for a comparatively minor cost savings. They point to examples of sex offenders, murderers and other violent offenders who have committed new crimes once leaving prison. They contend that the state's crime rates will skyrocket if an early release program is authorized.  

Support for Early Release

Those in support of the early release program are quick to point out that the state would not endorse the program for the most dangerous of offenders, including those convicted of murder and violent sex crimes.

They also argue that the rates of recidivism are much lower than many realize and that the state's crime rates would not dramatically increase. A recent study released by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) found that there is little to no correlation between keeping people locked up longer in prison and reducing crime and recidivism rates.

Others in support of the program believe that the best way to deter repeat criminal behavior and rehabilitate prisoners is not to keep them in prison for maximum terms, but to reintegrate them fully into the community with supervision programs, counseling, vocational training and other alternative programs.

Conclusion

The debate about using early release programs as one means of meeting the short-comings of the state budget is long from over. Legislators have considered similar proposals in the past few years, but they never have gained the support needed to become fully realized.

If you have questions about parole, sentencing or other criminal defense matters, please contact an attorney.

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