“How can I plan to be successful in re-entering if I don’t even know when I’m going to get out?”
In his early 20s, aspiring journalist Aaron Suganuma was overcome by drug addiction. When his funds ran low, he resorted to stealing to support his habit. He went to prison for armed robbery, looking at 51 months to 10 years. His earliest release date was set for January 19, 2009.
Aaron was an exemplary prisoner, but when the day of parole eligibility arrived, nothing happened. He was finally released later that year.
Parole decisions can vary based on which parole board hears the request. As a result, many prisoners’ sentences become extended stays, to nobody’s real benefit. According to the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, reform advocates maintain that longer terms do not lead to less recidivism—that is, how often people break the law post-release and wind up back behind bars.
Former Michigan speaker of the house Craig DeRoche, who now leads Prison Fellowship’s® advocacy team, calls attention to the reality of high incarceration rates in America—an issue that Michigan represents all too well.
“If somebody broke into my car and stole my laptop, and we incarcerate the person,” says DeRoche, “we’ve already made the choice to say, ‘I am so mad at you, I am going to pay for your healthcare and air conditioning, and I’m going to make you sit on a bed and watch TV for 23 hours a day.’ It’s a ridiculous notion when you think about it that way.”
Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending agrees—high incarceration rates have led to overcrowded jails and prisons, not reduced crime and safer communities. “I’ve seen firsthand this whole cycle of ‘getting tough’ in many, many ways,” she asserts, “and all it’s given us is a huge, two-billion-dollar prison system.”
MICHIGAN BY THE NUMBERS
- From 1980 to 2013, the state’s incarceration rate has risen by 172 percent
- Its prison population has risen 192 percent
- In 2009, the average prison term of those released was 4.3 years, as compared to the national average of 2.9 years
- Recidivism is around 30 percent
Michigan lawmakers are leading the charge to combat disproportional punishment and make the parole system safer and smarter with HB 4138. The parole board is already required to release low-risk prisoners at their eligibility date unless the board finds compelling reasons to deny parole. HB 4138 seeks to regulate the factors that parole boards consider when they deny parole to low-risk prisoners—factors including the individual’s current offense, criminal history, program performance, and overall conduct.
While the accountability measure would not substantially change the parole process, it would allow people who can safely rejoin the community to do so sooner, reducing the fiscal and human costs of incarceration.
“I look at it as parole reform,” says Rep. Kurt Heise (R), who helped propose the bill, “to make sure that we are recognizing and rewarding individuals—incarcerated, in prison—who are trying to better themselves.”
There has been no movement on the bill since October, but its sponsors are hopeful.
At Prison Fellowship, we believe that punishment should be both proportional and redemptive. We will continue to partner with legislators and Christian constituents to help restore all those affected by crime and incarceration.
“The Bible calls on Christians to remember those in prison as if you were there yourself,” DeRoche concludes.