Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS)

Happy Holidays!

The legislature will end 2015 with a full criminal justice reform docket. Here is a list of some of the key bills to watch in 2016:

  • HB 4138, the presumptive parole bill is pending in the Senate Government Operations Committee. Despite a concerted disinformation campaign waged by its opponents, the Governor and leaders in the House and Senate expect action on the bill in the New Year.
  • The House Appropriations Committee has heard testimony but not voted on HB 5078-81, the medical parole bills. Progress on the bills has slowed while legislators address issues related to federal funding for medical care.
  • The House Criminal Justice Committee has heard testimony but not voted on a 23-bill juvenile justice reform package. HB 4947-4954, bills will implement raising the age of criminal responsibility to18.
  • HB 4419, the felony firearm reform bill, was reported out of the House Criminal Justice Committee on June 12, ready for a vote by the full House.
  • A bill to eliminate the authority of successor judges to veto grants of parole to parolable lifers will be introduced soon.

Testimony and Editorials on Key Reform Bills

            We are providing the following editorial and testimony to assist you in advocating for presumptive parole, medical paroles and raising the age of criminal responsibility. CAPPS will provide updated information on the progress of this and other legislation throughout the coming year. To sign up for electronic alerts on issues that may be of interest to your clients, email To read the bills, go to or the CAPPS website at

Medical Paroles

Testimony submitted to the House Appropriations Committee on HB 5078-5081 by Barbara Levine, CAPPS research and policy director, on Dec. 1:

The problem of aging prisoners is not unique to Michigan.  A growing number of national and state reports describe how the “tough on crime” policies of the last several decades have filled prisons with people who are extremely low risk but costly to keep as they develop the health problems we all face as we age.

However, Michigan has an especially large and ever-increasing number of older prisoners because we impose a lot of very lengthy sentences and have an exceptionally long average length of stay.  In 2013, nearly 8,500 prisoners – 19 percent of the population – were age 50 or older; nearly 1,200 were 65 or older.  This proportion will inevitably continue to grow, as will spending on their medical care.

Aging prisoners are not, of course, the only ones with serious medical problems.  Anyone, regardless of their age, their offense or the length of their sentence can develop cancer or heart disease or other debilitating illnesses that require extensive and expensive treatment.

In the past, the parole board had the authority to grant medical paroles to people who were physically or mentally incapacitated.  The enactment of “truth in sentencing” legislation that requires every person to serve every day of his or her minimum sentence in a secure facility ended the practice.  As a result, the only route to release was through the long and politically difficult process of commutation.

CAPPS has long advocated the re-enactment of medical paroles.  We are grateful to Reps. Pscholka and Pagel for taking the lead in restoring the ability of the board to do what is safe, compassionate and cost-effective on a case-by-case basis.  HB 5078, 5079 and 5080 establish an excellent process:

  • They define “medically fragile” in a realistic way that allows the board to address various disabilities while keeping the potential threat to society as the core consideration.
  • They provide for appropriate involvement by prosecutors and victims.
  • They do not require public hearings so that people who are infirm, in pain or incapable of remembering what they’ve done can be questioned about their crimes. 
  • They define “medical facility” with sufficient flexibility to allow for the placement that is most suitable for the individual parolee.
  • They ensure that people remain under supervision until they reach what would have been their earliest parole date for the sentence they are serving.  
  • They require that people who have been released continue to meet the criteria for a medical parole unless they have otherwise become eligible for parole.
  • They protect the safety of vulnerable, medically fragile parolees by requiring the board to monitor their condition and by requiring any medical facility used by the Department to ensure the safety of its residents.

We recognize that a driving factor behind the bills is the desire to save medical costs in the corrections budget by transferring prisoners to settings where they can draw on various health care benefits, public and private.  In fact, the costs go beyond those that are directly related to delivering health care. To the extent that prisoners are transported offsite to receive specialized care, there is substantial expense for transportation and security.  And beyond that there are the routine security costs of operating a prison.  Even a few hundred beds make a difference, independent of extraordinary medical costs. The MDOC estimates that every 160 beds eliminated permit the closing of a housing unit at a cost savings of $2,628,000.

But cost-savings are not the only reason to enact these bills.  Our prisons are not designed to be nursing homes.  It is difficult for medically fragile prisoners to get to chow, to keep a job and to protect themselves from being taken advantage of by younger prisoners who may be manipulative or aggressive towards them.  It is hard to follow orders if you can’t walk fast enough or hear well enough or toilet quickly enough to comply.  More and more the Department has to make accommodations for people who can’t reach a top bunk or dress without assistance or breathe without oxygen.  And certainly our prisons were not intended to house those who are suffering from such severe dementia that they do not even know they are being punished or why.

Whether we believe the purpose of prison is punishment or crime prevention, we gain nothing from locking up people who are long past doing any harm to anyone else.  We lose nothing by allowing people to spend their last years or months in facilities where they can have their medical needs met and maybe even see their families a little more.  These bills allow us to apply common sense and avoid incarceration that is both pointless and cruel.

While we strongly support HB 5078, 79 and 80, we oppose HB 5081, which would make it a one-year misdemeanor for someone to aid or assist a parolee in leaving or attempting to leave a facility in which the parolee has been placed as a condition of a medical parole.  It is unclear why we even need to fear that people will try to spirit medically fragile parolees out of their nursing homes.  But the extremely broad language of this bill is certainly not the answer.  There is no re-quirement of intent to violate the conditions of parole.  Read literally, the bill would make it a crime for nursing home staff to take a parolee offsite to a hospital or doctor’s appointment.  It would also be a crime for a family member to innocently and temporarily take a parolee home for a holiday meal, even if that did not violate the rules of the medical facility.  Notably, for the parolee, leaving the facility could in itself be a violation of a supervision rule but not a crime.

By criminalizing the act of, wittingly or unwittingly, aiding a parolee to violate a condition of parole, HB 5081 opens the door to a world of possibilities for turning law-abiding citizens into criminals.  There would be no reason to stop with medical paroles.  The next step would be to make it a misdemeanor to help any parolee violate any condition of parole, like disregarding a curfew or changing an address or missing a meeting with a parole officer or a treatment provider.  One can imagine many ways in which a friend or family member could inadvertently facilitate these violations, for instance, by giving the parolee a ride to Place A when she was supposed to be at Place B.

It is the parolee’s responsibility to abide by the conditions of his or her parole.  HB 5078 makes it clear that violating the conditions of a medical parole will result in a return to prison.   That consequence should provide both parolees and their loved ones with sufficient incentive to insure compliance.

Toledo Blade Editorial: Pausing Paroles

This late October editorial by Jeff Garett is a good piece to share and quote. As we noted above, the bill is still expected to move forward in 2016.

Michigan’s sensible presumptive-parole bill, which would save taxpayers millions of dollars a year, has stalled in the state Senate, after members of the House passed it on a 67-39 vote three weeks ago. Despite the baseless and disingenuous fear-mongering of state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who never met a prison he didn’t like, senators should send the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder as quickly as possible.

The measure would generally grant paroles at offenders’ earliest release dates, except when public safety is at risk. It is supported by Governor Snyder, a Republican, and targets the chief reasons for Michigan’s excessive prison population and $2 billion-a-year corrections budget: lengthy sentences handed down by courts and low parole rates.

Michigan does not send more people to prison than other states, but it keeps them locked up far longer. Average lengths-of-stay in Michigan prisons are about twice those in Ohio. Historically, the Michigan Parole Board has been reluctant to release parole-eligible offenders, even with good prison conduct records and no demonstrable risk of reoffending.

Length-of-stay has little, if any, effect on recidivism and public safety. Last year, the Council of State Governments reported that the rearrest rates of Michigan parolees who were released within six months of their first eligibility did not differ significantly from those who were held longer.

The bill before the Senate would apply only to people who were sentenced after it took effect. Still, within five years, it would reduce the Michigan prison population by an estimated 3,200 inmates, saving roughly $75 million a year.

Critics of the bill, such as Mr. Schuette, twist the facts, implying that it authorizes early releases. In fact, no one could be released until he or she served the minimum sentence and was eligible for parole.

Nor does the bill create new parole standards. Current guidelines assume that prisoners who score a high probability of release will be paroled. The bill does not change those standards; it only compels the parole board to follow them.

Until now, the board has frequently ignored its own guidelines. As a result, nearly 2,000 people who are past their earliest release date, and scored favorably on release guidelines, remain in prison.

Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) said Michigan prisoners serve, on average, 127 percent of their minimum sentences. This bill would create clarity and consistency about what constitutes “a substantial and compelling reason” to keep someone in prison. An independent statewide poll commissioned by CAPPS found that two-thirds of Michigan residents support presumptive parole.

With 44,000 prisoners, Michigan spends about $35,000 a year for each inmate. Like Ohio, Michigan needs a smarter criminal justice system that ensures public safety, serves justice, and protects taxpayers. Michigan’s presumptive-parole plan is a big step forward.

Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility

Talking points for the entire juvenile justice package are available from the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency at raise-the-age-2/. The following is testimony Barbara Levine submitted to the House Criminal Justice Committee on Dec. 1 in support of the bills to “Raising the Age,” HB 4947-4954.

Juvenile courts reflect the common sense understanding that children and teenagers are both less mature and more malleable than adults. Their purpose is to focus less on punishing young offenders than on helping them to address the causes of their behavior. The goal is to give them the chance to put youthful mistakes behind them and regain the opportunity for a productive future.

The advent of sophisticated research on brain development confirms the understanding that parents, teachers and juvenile justice reformers have long shared. This research shows that areas of the brain that affect judgment, foresight and impulse control continue to develop into the early- and mid-20s. As a result, impulsivity, susceptibility to peer pressure and inability to anticipate consequences all contribute to criminal behavior by juveniles. Conversely, the process of psychosocial maturation leads the vast majority of juvenile offenders, even those who committed serious crimes, to grow out of antisocial activity as they transition to adulthood.

Michigan, like most states, recognizes adolescent immaturity by making 18 the age of majority for most purposes. This coincides, of course, with the point at which most kids have graduated from high school. Anyone younger than 18 cannot vote at all and cannot marry, join the military or even get a tattoo without their parents’ permission. Parents are legally obligated to support their children until the age of 18. Nonetheless, Michigan treats 17-year-olds as adults for purposes of criminal responsibility. It is one of only nine states that maintain this anomaly. Currently there are active campaigns to raise the age in North Carolina, New York, Wisconsin and Texas. This leaves Michigan in the company of Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina and Louisiana.

The large majority of 17-year-olds tried as adults are sentenced to probation and/or jail time, just like the majority of all criminal defendants. Like older defendants, these teens get to carry with them for the rest of their lives all the collateral consequences of an adult felony conviction, which will make it harder for them to get employment, occupational licenses, housing and education. They may be unable even to engage in such routine activities as crossing the border to Canada.

Several hundred people each year are committed to prison for offenses they committed at age 17. They experience the full impact of incarceration with adults. Some will be victimized because of their size or insecurity. Some will respond to peer pressure to be tough or choose to emulate negative adult role models. None will receive programming designed to address the needs, fears, desires and turmoil of 17-year-olds. But all will carry the self-image and the stigma of being ex-convicts.

It is tempting to assume these must be particularly dangerous teenagers, but that is not, in fact, the case. Some initially received sentences of probation but failed in a community supervision system that assumes an adult level of maturity and self-control. More than half receive minimum sentences of two years or less, mostly for such offenses as theft, burglary and weapons offenses. While they may have a juvenile court record or a history of school problems, most are still adolescents who could be better prepared for a productive future in more age-appropriate programs through the juvenile justice system.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility does not present any risk to public safety. On the contrary, it would protect the community by increasing the chance that 17-year-olds will ultimately become productive citizens without the perpetual handicap of an adult conviction. For the occasional 17-year-old who is so dangerous to the community that incarceration as an adult is warranted, waiver into the adult criminal justice system on a case-by-case basis would remain available.

We are grateful to those legislators who are willing to reassess the actual effectiveness of our criminal justice system and the best uses of our costly prison system. Forever saddling people with adult consequences for adolescent behavior is not effective or fair. It is a poor investment in the future of our kids and a poor use of the corrections budget. We urge you to bring Michigan in line with brain science, the laws of most other states and, above all, your own common sense and experience in recognizing that 17-year-olds should be treated like the teenagers they are for all purposes, including criminal responsibility.

by Laura Sager, Executive Director
Citizens Alliance on Prisons
and Public Spending

The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) is a non-profit public policy organization. For more information about CAPPS’s research, recommendations, or to get involved, please go to the CAPPS website at  If you are interested in helping with CAPPS’s public education and outreach efforts, please email Laura Sager at