Abolish the State Parole Board


Don't complain about taxes unless you are willing to consider changes to Michigan's prison system. At an average annual cost of $32,000 each, we keep thousands of criminals in prison who could legally and safely be paroled. Our Legislature could enact legislation to encourage the state parole board to parole prisoners when they are eligible to be paroled, but some legislators are reluctant to do so. They don't want to appear soft on crime and don't want to be blamed when facilities close and prison workers lose their jobs.

We should all be disgusted by the thought that we would keep people in prison just to provide jobs for others, but that is just what's happening. When Alma Wheeler Smith, chair of the House Appropriations Committee on Corrections, was presented with a list of recommendations for cutting prison costs compiled by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, her response was "We can't afford the wholesale layoffs in the state of Michigan at this time." (Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), 10/24/2008).

We lock up citizens at a much higher rate than our neighboring states. Michigan’s incarceration rate is 489 prisoners/100,000 residents, higher than Illinois (351), Indiana (388), Minnesota (180), New York (326), Ohio (400), Pennsylvania (340) and Wisconsin (380).

Governor Granholm touched on the subject in her 1/29/08 state of the state address:

[W]e can achieve significant savings in our Corrections Department by adopting changes that save money but do not compromise public safety. Money that we save from adopting corrections policies similar to those of other Midwestern states can be used to hire more police officers in our neighborhoods to prevent crimes.

What I know about our prison situation comes from the website of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending (CAPPS). CAPPS' research reveals why our prison population is high and growing. If you are interested in this issue, I recommend that you read the reports on the CAPPS website.

A big part of the problem is the state parole board. The following is from a CAPPS report titled The high cost of denying parole: an analysis of prisoners eligible for release:

In 1992, Michigan changed from a parole board whose members were corrections professionals to one comprised of political appointees. The current board has adopted numerous policies and practices that lengthen the time prisoners serve.

  • Parole grant rates dropped from 68 to 48 percent.
  • Far more paroles are revoked for technical violations of parole conditions and the parolees who are returned to prison are kept much longer before being released again.
  • Prisoners serving parolable life terms who became eligible for release after serving ten years are being denied parole on the rationale that “life means life.”
  • Even prisoners granted parole continue to fill scarce prison beds because the board has fixed a date for their release months into the future.

A bill (House Bill 4548) is pending in the state House that attempts to reduce unjustified parole denials by the parole board by such measures as permitting appeals and requiring parole board interviews to be recorded. But the real solution (my solution, not CAPPS') might be to abolish the parole board altogether. After a prisoner has served his minimum sentence, only one thing should keep him from being paroled, and that is his prison behavior. All other factors, like the nature of the crime and prior criminal record, were considered when he was sentenced.

In making the decision whether or not to parole a prisoner, the board's primary consideration is a "score" assigned the prisoner which predicts his risk of re-offending. The score is compiled by Corrections personnel based on parole guidelines established by statute. The score is calculated from numbers from seven categories: offense, prior record, institutional program performance, institutional conduct, statistical risk, age and mental status. Let's say for the sake of argument that the parolability score is a valid predictor of a successful parole. Why not base the parole decision on the score alone? Why do we need the involvement of the parole board?

I think we should abolish the parole board and parole prisoners based on their parolability score alone. I also think we should change the parole guidelines so that only four factors are considered: institutional program performance, institutional conduct, age and mental status.

CAPPS estimates that we have at least 7,220 prisoners in our state prisons who shouldn't be there (see page 43 of The high cost of denying parole). Although they have served their sentences and meet all the requirements for parole, the state parole board has decided they want to keep them a while longer - just because they can. These 7,220 prisoners are costing us $145,024,277 a year.