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Overhauling Michigan's parole system could save taxpayers millions

California inmates will be housed in a Baldwin prison beginning in 2011
Flickr user Still Burning
Flickr Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
California inmates will be housed in a Baldwin prison beginning in 2011

Michigan’s inmates stay in prison longer than those in any of the 35 states Pew Research Center studied in 2012.

For Monica Jahner, that meant spending 28 years of her life behind bars. She was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder in 1978. No one died in her case.

But Jahner doesn’t see herself as a victim. She says she spent those 28 years in prison trying to improve her life and the lives of fellow inmates.

“I got my degree and, you know, I did a lot while I was there. I didn’t just sit around. I fought and helped to get education for the women,” Jahner said. “My journey was a good one because I made a lot of impact on the system, I think.”

Jahner got her first chance at parole ten years into her sentence. But right around that same time, a Michigan convict on parole confessed to killing four teenage girls. Jahner says that made it nearly impossible for people like her to get in front of the parole board.

It was another 18 years before she walked out the front door of Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth after a string of parole battles.

She now works with former inmates and parolees to get their lives on track, and advocates for prisoners who are still inside.

“I go door to door to go out there and let people see you can give people a second chance,” Jahner. “When they find out I go to prison, I mean, literally heads spin around.”

Jahner believes the only reason she won parole was because third-party prisoner advocates took interest in her case.

Credit Pew Research Center / Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center
Michigan's offenders serve longer sentences than the national average.

One of those groups was the Michigan-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. CAPPS Executive Director Laura Sager says prisoners are too often denied parole based on so-called “tough on crime” politics and preconceived notions of who prisoners are.

“We really need to stay close to the evidence,” Sager said. “We need to understand what works, and what works both to prevent crime and who’s at real risk for recommitting crimes.”

Sager says almost thirty percent of prisoners who have been denied parole fall in the lowest risk category for release. That’s based on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ own assessment.

“We’re spending a hundred million dollars to keep that group in prison alone,” Sager said.

Among other things, CAPPS says the state’s parole board should be required to release prisoners when they first become eligible – unless objective evidence suggests they’re a risk to public safety.

Sager says that would free up hundreds of millions of dollars the state could spend on programs that are proven to improve public safety – things like early childhood education, mental health treatment programs, and substance abuse programs.

But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette isn’t buying it.

“I suppose if you had no prisons, you’d reduce your corrections costs,” Schuette said. “But that wouldn’t make a safer Michigan.”

Schuette says it wouldn’t be fair to victims and their families to see these offenders go free. He says the best way to cut prison costs is more privatization.

“Let’s run our prisons more efficiently instead of saying, ‘Oh gee, the only way we can cut costs is letting out dangerous prisoners.’ I’m not going to stand for that,” Schuette said.

State House Appropriations Chair Joe Haveman says he agrees there’s room for more privatization of prison functions. But he says the only way to really make a dent in the state’s annual two-billion dollar corrections budget is to do something about the prison population and length of stay.

But he says it’s going to take time to sell the idea of a parole system overhaul to his colleagues in Lansing.

In the meantime, advocates say thousands of Michigan prisoners will be fighting an uphill battle for release.

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