Providing Safe, Secure, Objective Parole for Low Risk Prisoners
Prison sentences in Michigan are long and getting longer with people spending more time behind bars than ever before. In fact, Michigan has one of the longest averages for time served in prison in the U.S. The average minimum sentence has increased 26 percent, reaching 9.5 years in 2015. The number one reason people are spending more time behind bars is the subjective input of the state parole board, which decides who to release and when. State lawmakers want to change this with what is called “Objective Parole,” and have proposed new legislation (House Bill 5377), which will result in more people – who have been rehabilitated and are safe to return to their communities – being released from prisons, as well as save the state tens of millions of dollars annually, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections, which supports this legislation.
Under current Michigan law, parole guidelines are used to score prisoners on a variety of factors to determine if they should be released. This scoring takes into account the individual’s current sentence, criminal record, institutional conduct, statistical risk for committing assaultive or property related crimes, the completion of required programming while incarcerated, mental health, age, and plan for housing. A high probability score means the person is low risk for reoffending and should be set free when they have served their minimum sentence. But a parole board, under this same law, can deny release based on “substantial and compelling reasons.” In effect, the board can insert opinions such as the person “lacks empathy” or “lacks tools to address their problems,” without providing evidence. Consequently, the parole board denies release based on “subjective” perceptions rather than the “objective” scoring system. The results are clear: The number of prisoners in Michigan who were eligible for parole, but kept in prison past their earliest release date more than nearly tripled from 5,687 people in 1991, to 15,950 people in 2006. In 2016, nearly half of all parole cases considered were denied.
Michigan lawmakers introduced HB 5377, which clarifies the definition of "substantial and compelling," so that subjectivity is reduced, if not eliminated from the parole process. HB 5377 not only will require the state parole board to base decisions in facts, which research shows leads to accurate predictions of a person’s likelihood to reoffend when released.
Under the proposed legislation, the parole board may consider in its decision: a prisoner’s refusal to participate in a program ordered to reduce his or her risk, verified objective evidence of substantial harm to a victim that could not have been available for consideration at the time of sentencing, if the individual threated to harm another person if he or she is released, objective evidence of post-sentencing conduct that the person would likely be a danger to society.
Here is, in large part, how HB 5377 will work:
▪ It will require parole boards to give more deference to the sentences judges impose based on sentencing guidelines;
▪ The state parole board also will submit a report to the legislature that includes the number of prisoners who are low risk offenders and were granted parole, deferred parole pending completion of a certain program, and denied parole. The report also will include the number of individuals who completed their minimum sentence, but were denied parole; and
▪ The bill does NOT change when people are eligible for parole, and preserves the parole board's ability to deny parole of low-risk prisoners based on legitimate safety concerns.
All of these reforms through HB 5377 will result in fewer low risk people, who completed their minimal sentence, from needlessly sitting behind bars. The bill will also reduce the prison population by 3,200 within five years, resulting in average annual savings of $75 million, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.
It is not only fiscally smart to allow people who are low risk and eligible for parole – based on objective guidelines – to be released from prison. Objective parole is critical to ending Michigan’s decades of mass incarceration and ensuring that thousands of people who paid their dues go free.
 Pew Center on the States. 2012. Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms. Washington, DC: Pew Center on the States.
 MDOC 2017 Parole Board Decisions Report.