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February 06, 2007 - (MI)

Open Mind On Inmate Release

State leaders and Department of Corrections (DOC) officials must take a hard look at crime and punishment in Michigan. The state's prison population reached a new record last year, pushing corrections spending to nearly $1.9 billion, almost one fifth of the general fund budget. Legislators looking to close a gap of some $550 million in that budget for the current fiscal year must cast a critical eye in the prisons' direction.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expected to tell lawmakers today in her State of the State address that she intends to begin commuting the sentences of inmates who pose no threat, especially the elderly, frail and sick. That seems reasonable with a prison system that is bursting at the seams.

A record 51,500 inmates were in the state's 50 facilities last year; about 2,000 more than the previous year. TV rooms, weight rooms, and office and storage space were cleared for beds, and lower-security prisons with six-bed dormitory-style rooms had a seventh bed squeezed in to accommodate them all. The state hadn't expected to reach 51,000-plus prisoners until September 2008. But the mistaken release of a parolee who went on a killing spree last February helped drive up inmate numbers and state costs.

In the aftermath of three slayings by Patrick Selepak, the Michigan Parole Board granted fewer paroles. Also, corrections officers sent more parolees back to prison for violations. Parole rates dropped from 54 percent to 48 percent the month after the slayings. The overall decline for the year was enough to keep 725 inmates behind bars. Parolees returned to prison for technical violations also jumped 12 percent to 3,191, according to the DOC.

The Parole Board isn't guided by budget or prison-space factors, but neither should it be paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, thus keeping low-risk offenders behind bars. Michigan imprisons more people than any of its Great Lakes neighbors and has been more stingy about releasing them since shifting to a parole board appointed by the DOC director in 1992. Michigan parole rates were around 70 percent in the early 1990s, but have dropped to around 50 percent today.

Of the eight states that touch the Great Lakes, Michigan has the highest rate of incarceration -- 480 prisoners per 100,000 population compared with the eight-state average of 335, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. About one-third of the state's prison inmates, or 16,000 to 17,000, are parole-eligible but still are imprisoned at a cost of about $30,000 each per year.

Prison overcrowding, however, should not be a get-out-of prison card for every non-violent, or white collar criminal. Those individuals -- embezzlers, for example -- are in prison for good cause. Though they didn't kill or rape, they broke the law and hurt other individuals, sometimes grievously. As a matter of justice and to deter others from committing similar crimes, there must be certain and severe punishment for them as well. Prison policy also must adhere to Michigan's truth-in-sentencing law, so that the public can have confidence that criminals are serving at least their minimum sentences.

Measuring the cost of keeping prisoners behind bars against the possible risk to society is appropriate. Now is the time. Given Michigan's growing and aging prison population and the state's dire financial situation, compromises have to be made. Releasing some low-risk prisoners can be one of them.

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