- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Parole Board would have less leeway to keep certain prisoners locked up past their minimum sentence under legislation approved Thursday to curtail prison spending by at least $75 million annually within five to 10 years, the equivalent of closing two prisons.

The bill was passed 67-39 by the Republican-controlled House despite opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette and law enforcement groups. The concept is supported by Gov. Rick Snyder and next will be considered by the GOP-led Senate, where the measure could face resistance.

The parole board is supposed to release inmates deemed to have a high probability of release, which means they have a low risk of reoffending and do not pose a high risk to public safety. But it can deny parole for “substantial and compelling reasons,” an option prisoner advocates charge is being used too frequently and for subjective reasons.

The legislation includes a provision presuming future inmates with a high probability of release are not a menace to society and shall be released after serving their minimum term. The parole board’s reasons for departing from parole guidelines also would be more narrowly defined.

The bill sponsor, House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Kurt Heise, said tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to a huge expansion of a now-$2 billion, 43,000-prisoner system that is unsustainable when the state must pay for education and roads.

“Did that work? Instead, we’ve got thousands of people in prison right now, many who really don’t need to be there anymore,” the Plymouth Township Republican said during debate.

Others spoke against the legislation, raising public safety and other concerns. Schuette said in a statement that it would allow the “automatic and early release of violent criminals.”

Rep. John Chirkun, a Roseville Democrat and former sheriff’s officer, said local police departments and counties will be left “holding the bag” with no additional funding to “cover Lansing’s savings.”

Added Rep. Jim Runestad, a White Lake Republican: “Money can’t be the primary focus here.”

The bill’s supporters countered that it also is about rehabilitating offenders and providing transparency and certainty to inmates and victims. Paroling prisoners is better than keeping them until their maximum sentence, when they are released with no supervision or transition services, according to advocates.

“If we keep people who are rehabilitated in prison, we make it more difficult to hold prisoners who need to be kept there,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak, a Troy Republican.

A House Fiscal Agency analysis does not specify savings that would come with presumptive parole. Heise and the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a prisoner advocacy organization, projected 3,200 fewer prison beds within five years, saving at least $75 million annually by then. Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz estimated the bill could lead to a decline of 3,000 beds in 10 years for $80 million in annual savings.

The Senate may be less receptive to presumptive parole than the House.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told reporters he likes parts of the legislation but noted only one-fifth of convicted felons go to prison.

“People that are in prison are bad people,” he said.

Schuette and county prosecutors said the measure should be amended to exclude “violent” prisoners from the presumptive parole policy. Heise disputed that such inmates would even score in the high probability of release category and said Schuette’s plan would save just $13 million a year.

Also Thursday, the House voted 101-5 for a bill expanding an intensive probation program for felony offenders with a history of probation violations and 106-0 for legislation requiring knowing criminal intent to be convicted of certain regulatory crimes unless otherwise indicated by legislators.

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Online:

House Bill 4138: http://1.usa.gov/1YS0Xcd

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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