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Granholm, lawmakers endorse parole changes

By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press Writer

LANSING, Jan. 22, 2009 (AP): Lawmakers and Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Thursday endorsed changes in parole policies that would drop Michigan's prison population by thousands and save $262 million in corrections costs by 2015.

The key proposal: automatically releasing inmates once they serve their minimum sentence unless they don't complete prison rehabilitation programs or were convicted of crimes such as rape and murder for which the maximum term is life. The parole board could hold offenders beyond 120 percent of their minimum sentence only if they pose a ``very high'' risk of re-offending.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm

``It's the length of stay that is driving our high incarceration rate in this state,'' Department of Corrections Director Patricia Caruso told reporters. ``People just do a lot more time.''

About 12,000, or one-fourth, of Michigan's 48,000 prisoners are beyond their earliest release date. That's down from 17,000 when Granholm took office in 2003.

Policymakers want to pass laws limiting the parole board's discretion to hold inmates beyond their minimum sentence. The requirement would start with prisoners sentenced after April 1 of this year, so those in prison now wouldn't be affected—though the board already has taken steps on its own to reduce the number of inmates being held beyond their earliest release date.

Outside experts analyzed the prison system during a yearlong review requested by the Democratic governor and legislative leaders. The bipartisan report released Thursday by the Council of State Governments was backed by legislators and administration officials who worked on the project.

The analysis found that minimum sentences in Michigan are similar to the time served by criminals in other states. The difference is Michigan inmates stay in prison considerably longer than is the case nationally.

In 2007, Michigan was one of just four states to spend more on prisons than universities and community colleges. The nearly $2 billion prison budget has come under scrutiny in recent years as Michigan grapples with less tax revenue.

Critics have said many low-risk offenders could be released without jeopardizing public safety. Defenders have said only the worst criminals end up in Michigan prisons and they deserve to be there a long time.

Republicans and Democrats applauded the study for not just focusing on reducing prison costs but for proposing that savings be spent to deter crime and lower recidivism.

Michigan, for example, has the lowest number of law enforcement per capita in the Great Lakes region despite having the region's highest violent crime rate.

``The paramount concern is public safety,'' said Sen. Alan Cropsey, a DeWitt Republican.

The violent crime rate dropped 2 percent between 2000 and 2007 while arrests for violent offenses fell 22 percent during the same period.

The report suggested hiring more staff to reduce backlogs at state police crime labs; increasing job opportunities for at-risk youth, parolees and probationers; ensuring first-time parole violators sent back to prison serve no more than nine months; and setting up local pilot projects so probation violators get a quick, short stay in jail.

Probation violators often see no punishment until they break multiple rules and are sent to prison—where it costs more to incarcerate them.

If all the options to reduce corrections spending are adopted, Michigan would have 5,572 fewer prisoners than expected in 2015, according to the study. About $262 million would be saved from 2011 to 2015 _ not a huge amount considering the state probably will spent upwards of $10 billion on corrections in that period.

Policymakers defended the savings as a good first step that can gain bipartisan support.

The study didn't consider other big policy changes such as scaling back truth-in-sentencing laws passed in 1998 that require offenders to serve their minimum sentence. Michigan used to reward inmates with disciplinary credits for good behavior.

Other proposals include re-establishing a sentencing commission to examine sentence lengths and replacing the parole board's political appointees with civil servants.

John Andrews of the Michigan Association of Substance Abuse Coordinating Agencies said he hopes the state will spend more on drug and alcohol treatment because nearly two-thirds of new inmates have abused drugs, alcohol or both. That often is the root cause of crime, he said.

Andrews said he's worried Michigan's high unemployment rate will make it even tougher for criminals to turn their lives around unless they get more help once they are released.

David Eggert can be reached at deggert(ap).org

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