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Parole Denials Based Upon Assumptions; Tough Policies Threaten Public Safety at Great Cost

by David M. Reutter

“Inaccurate assumptions about the impact of longer prison stays on reoffense rates generally, and about the future behavior of people who committed assaultive and sex offenses in particular, have led us to routinely continue the incarceration of thousands of parole-eligible prisoners who would not have returned to prison in any event,” concludes an August 2009 report by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. “The cost to those families and tax payers is enormous.”

The report, Denying Parole at First Eligibility: How Much Public Safety Does it Actually Buy?, examined 76,721 cases of Michigan prisoners sentenced to indeterminate terms after 1981 and released for the first time from 1986 through 1999. While the report is fact-specific to Michigan prisoners, its findings and conclusions should have widespread applicability, for human nature, after all, is universal.

The purpose of the report was to answer two important questions: (1) Does continuing to incarcerate people who have served their minimum sentence actually improve public safety and, if so, to what extent and to what cost? (2) Specifically, does denying parole at the minimum only to release a person a year or two thereafter have a substantial impact on re-offense rates?

The average length of stay for a Michigan prisoner is 16 months longer than other Great Lake states, and higher than the national average. That average comes due to longer sentences for assaultive and sex offenders. Yet, Michigan’s prison commitment rate is below national averages because it imprisons fewer drug and nonassaultive offenders.

A “get tough” mandate in 1992 changed Michigan’s parole board composition from civil servants to political appointees. Since then, the proportion of prisoners beyond their earliest release date (ERD) grew from 16% to 31%. That mandate resulted in increased parole denials due to a conscious choice to keep assaultive and sex offenders longer based on their crime, not their risk of re-offending.

The proportion of those who had low risk scores who were granted parole fell from 81% to 55%. Sex offenders gained parole only 13% of the time while those who had a crime involving a death gained parole at a 28% rate.

The report found that success upon release varied greatly by offense type. Overall, 63% did not return to prison within four years. About 20% of parolees were returned with technical violations while 18% returned with new crimes. The greatest success rate belonged to those convicted of homicide (80.1%) and sex offenses (77.6%). Meanwhile, those with crimes that were financially motivated returned to prison at a rate of 45% of all releasees. Larceny was the most common crime for parolees returning with new sentences.

As to the main question of the report, it was found that holding people beyond their ERD had very little impact on their success rates. In fact, the report found those held a year beyond their ERD were slightly less successful than those released on their ERD; keeping people two, three or four years beyond their ERD made no difference compared with the success of those released on their ERD.

Yet, under the guise of avoiding an increase in returns for new crimes, 9,664 assaultive and sex offenders who would not have committed new crimes were denied parole and held one to four years beyond their ERD. Had everyone been released upon their ERD, Michigan could have saved 33,000 prison beds over 14 years – or 2,300 yearly. That would have saved taxpayers $1 billion over that period – or $73 million annually.

The report acknowledges the need to manage the risks parolees present to public safety. This matter of public “debate often rests on assumptions about parolee crime that are widely held but thinly supported by the facts,” says the report. This report, which is available on PLN’s website, dispels those assumptions with hard facts.

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