Parole from Past to Present
What is Parole?
Parole is defined as a term of community supervision afforded by the Parole Board to a prisoner who has served the minimum portion of his or her sentence, less good time or disciplinary credits if applicable. Under state statute, a prisoner may not be granted parole until the Parole Board has reasonable assurances that the prisoner will not become a menace to society or a risk to the public safety.
While on parole, a parolee is supervised by an agent who is an employee of the Department of Corrections. Upon the successful completion of the parole period, the parolee is “discharged” from his or her sentence. If the parolee violates the parole terms, which includes any standard conditions as well as any special conditions, he or she may be sent back to prison. The Parole Board retains jurisdiction until the maximum sentence is served in prison or the parolee discharges from parole.
The Inception of Parole
Since 1885, there have been a variety of advisory agencies to the Governor in the matters of commutations, pardons and paroles. In 1885, the Advisory Board offered recommendations to the Governor upon applications for commuted sentences, pardons and conditional licenses to go at large (later called parole).
The State Board of Prison Inspectors took over the duties of the Advisory Board in 1891. In 1893, the state returned to the use of the Advisory Board until 1921. A Commissioner of Pardons and Paroles then replaced the Advisory Board in 1921.
In 1922, Governor Alexander Groesbeck created several new state departments. The Department of Public Safety, one of newly created departments, supervised parolees on the street. During the early 1920s, the prison population increased significantly due to new commitments, tightened paroles and an increase in the number of parolees returned for parole violations.
At this time, the Governor's office controlled all paroles and pardons and Governor Groesbeck personally regulated the number of prisoners being released. During his six years as governor, Groesbeck drastically reduced the number of paroles. The parole approval rate of prisoners eligible for parole dropped from an average of 48 percent to 40 percent with a low of 30 percent being reached in 1922. During Grosebeck’s tenure as governor, restrictions on parolees were so stringent that a person could be sent back for almost anything. Governor Groesbeck instructed the Department of Public Safety to return as many parole violators as possible.
Parole Scandal Uncovered
During the 1920s, the granting of parole came under increased scrutiny. Since access to freedom was the biggest gift one could bestow upon a prisoner, parole had become somewhat of a commodity and allegations arose that paroles were being bought and sold. In 1926, a grand jury was convened to investigate the sale of parole. Based on the grand jury’s findings, it was determined that the sale of parole was the biggest business behind prison walls.
Enactment of the Corrections Law
Between 1932 and 1936, the state's prison population steadily declined to a ten-year low. Paroles granted each year during this time exceeded the number of new commitments to prison. However, reforms that occurred in 1937 reversed this pattern. Public Act 255 of 1937, known as the Corrections Law, revised the parole system. The total number of parolees and the percentage of paroles granted to petitioners fell sharply.
The next change in the parole process occurred when the head of the Parole Board insisted that parole be determined according to criteria of the board's making without interference from prison officials. Paroles, always closely controlled by the Governor even after the creation of a Commissioner of Pardons and Paroles, came under the control of the Assistant Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. He also headed the newly created three-member Parole Board.
The Parole Board was also placed under civil service. The three members served an indefinite term with complete authority to grant or deny parole within limits of sentence. This meant that the promise of release was taken from the Governor's and Wardens’ hands.
A non-political Parole Board was created in which the members could be removed for cause after a hearing before a bi-partisan Corrections Commission.
The Corrections Act also provided for an employment Director to place all inmates recommended for parole in jobs. Additionally, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles trained a legal investigator to examine the legalities of cases and to advise the Parole Board after his investigation.
Parole in the 1950’s and 1960’s
Access to freedom was the biggest prize that a prisoner could earn and increased access to parole was one of the eleven demands produced by inmates during the 1952 riot at Jackson prison. It stated that "a letter on prison stationery should ask the Parole Board to revise its procedure to give equal treatment to all inmates.”
Notable themes of the 1950s included the full implementation of individual treatment programs linked to parole. The importance of parole as part of an effort to reduce the population increased and a new Parole Camp was built near Jackson prison where inmates spent thirty or more days prior to being released. In April of 1954, a Parole Board Counseling Meeting stressed a new Counselor-Parole Board relationship. Counselors were to be seen as pre-parole preparation staff.
By the 1960s, prisoner treatment programs were increasing in popularity. Effective treatment programs justified early release and helped relieve Michigan's crowded prison system. Well publicized treatment programs such as the pre-parole camp, helped to justify the early release of prisoners to the public. The idea of treatment also substantiated the expanded use of programs.
The changing political and social climate of the 1960s and 1970s began to discredit the treatment model. The system of positive reinforcement operating today was the outgrowth of that model.
A New Era
In 1992, Governor John Engler ordered a reorganization of the Michigan Parole Board which was enacted into law. It consisted of ten full-time, non-civil service employees appointed by the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC).
In 2009, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed executive order 2009-20, which abolished the Michigan Parole Board and established a 15 member Michigan Parole and Commutation Board, consisting of non-Civil Service employees who were appointed by the Governor of the State of Michigan.
In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder signed executive order 2011-03, which abolished the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board and established a 10 member Michigan Parole Board, consisting of non-Civil Service employees who are appointed by the Director of the MDOC. The board members’ backgrounds are varied and include law enforcement, law, corrections and social work.
Although the Parole Board has undergone dramatic changes since its initial inception, the mechanics of the parole process have remained constant for decades. The Parole Board’s purpose and primary priority is to assess parole eligible prisoners to determine whether or not they will become a menace to society or pose a risk to the public safety.
Current Parole Board Process
The Parole Board gains jurisdiction of a case when a prisoner serving a non-life sentence has served his or her minimum sentence, less any good time or disciplinary credits the prisoner may have earned, if applicable. (In most cases the minimum sentence is set by the judge, the maximum by statute.)
The Parole Board is divided into three-member panels. The decision whether to grant or deny parole is made by majority vote of a Parole Board panel. (All cases involving a life sentence must be decided by a majority vote of the full parole board). If the panel denies parole, a date is selected for the next parole board review.
Parole Board members conduct prisoner interviews throughout facilities in Michigan. Each facility visit is for three to four days and a typical interview lasts 15 to 20 minutes.
During the parole interview, the Parole Board questions the prisoner about the nature of their offense(s), whether the prisoner accepts appropriate responsibility for their prior criminal record, their behavior and adjustment while in prison, their participation in programming and their mental health and substance abuse history.
The factors considered by the Parole Board in making parole decisions include:
• crime for which the prisoner is serving,
• prior criminal record,
• institutional behavior and adjustment,
• the parole guidelines score,
• any information obtained from the prisoner interview, and
• information from victims and other relevant sources.
Parole for life sentences is more involved. Public hearings are required by state statute and input from victims, prosecutors and judges are considered. Changes to the law have made prisoners serving life under the drug-lifer law eligible for parole as well. Paroles for life sentences require a vote of the entire parole board. Non-parolable life sentences require commutation by the governor.
Over the past 30 years, averages of 8.2 prisoners per year serving a life sentence have been released through the lifer law or commutation process.
Recently a new law has revised parole eligibility for certain drug offenses. This means that some prisoners may be eligible for parole earlier than previously indicated. Corrections officials are currently identifying which inmates will be eligible for parole under the amended law.