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Prison reform bills worry some; others embrace opportunity

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Above: Rows of razor wire secure the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson.  Some officials are worried that if “truth in sentencing” laws are reversed, Jackson could be inundated with prisoners. Others feel that this presents an opportunity to help prisoners get back on their feet.

By Julie Riddle
Exponent contributor

JACKSON – Home to four prisons capable of housing more than 6,000 inmates, Jackson County stands to feel the impact should a pair of prison reform bills get the OK from state legislators.

The bills would reverse Michigan’s so-called “truth in sentencing” law, which mandates that felons sentenced to prison serve the full minimum amount of their term.

While the bills’ passage would not mean a flood of released prisoners descending on Jackson, it could increase the number of parolees vying for local jobs and housing. Jackson County police, already overtaxed by staffing challenges, say they don’t have the personnel to handle the uptick in criminal behavior they expect would accompany more people frustrated by the limitations imposed by a criminal record.

Advocates for the proposed reforms say any effort to equip prisoners to transition positively out of prison increases community safety. Inmates incentivised to work for early release by bettering themselves are less likely to reoffend, they contend.

Others say Michigan already gives offenders that chance to do better and has fair rules governing how judges impose sentences. They say changing prison release rules would rob victims of their security and put dangerous people into communities before they have served the time the state says is necessary to rehabilitate them.

Regardless of the bills’ passage, the effort to increase community safety surrounding prison releases starts with individuals deciding to take a chance on someone with a criminal history, said Mike Hirst, owner of Hirst Electric Co. in Jackson. Also the founder of Andy’s Angels, a nonprofit that promotes efforts to help people in addiction recovery, Hirst intentionally employs people who have been incarcerated.

Hiring and housing the formerly incarcerated may mean taking a risk, but the alternative is a revolving door of criminality that hurts both the offender and the community, Hirst said.

“Why don’t we get them back on their feet?” he said. Otherwise, “We’re just going to spend money incarcerating them again, and again, and again. So let’s put them on the team. See how they react.”

‘Unprepared for it’

The prison reform bills under consideration would, if approved, move inmates out of prisons more quickly, potentially including a larger-than-usual number of parolees released following the bills’ passage.

One bill would allow some inmates to reduce their minimum sentence by up to 20 percent by earning “good time” through completing vocational or education programs. Prisoners sentenced for murder, human trafficking, or a sex crime would not qualify.

Separately, the so-called “second look” bill would allow inmates who have served at least 10 years to ask for a shorter sentence, which, for some, could mean immediate release. That bill excludes mass shooters.

Of the roughly 700 current Michigan Department of Corrections prisoners sentenced in Jackson County, nearly 200 have served more than 10 years in prison and could be eligible for a shortened sentence.

If the bills do pass, that doesn’t necessarily mean a flood of parolees released into Jackson, said Kyle Kaminski, MDOC public information officer.

After preparing inmates for release, the state typically returns those released on parole to the county where they committed a crime, meaning the majority of inmates in Jackson’s prisons would go elsewhere upon release. (More below)

 

However, MDOC will also release inmates where they have family or other support, Kaminski said. Jackson has historically seen a high number of inmates’ families moving to the area to be close to their loved ones during incarceration. With their support system having moved here, some people who committed violent crimes elsewhere are released in Jackson and the surrounding area.

The pressure to suddenly provide for a family, while employers and landlords turn them away because of their criminal record, can leave even the best-intentioned parolees feeling helpless, said Christopher Boulter, deputy director of support services for the Blackman-Leoni Department of Public Safety.

“The only thing they know, when nobody gives them a second chance, is going back to a life of crime,” Boulter said.

Parolees without a place to live are provided transitional housing and other reentry services, but that support is not always enough to prevent dangerous behavior. A previous contract with MDOC for parolee housing at a local hotel produced an influx of assaults, Boulter said.

With police agencies across the state struggling to recruit new hires, police are stretched thin as it is, and the prospect of more prison parolees in the community makes him nervous, Boulter said.

“If it happens, we may very well be unprepared for it,” he said

High costs

Advocates for the bills say shorter sentences would shave off some of the tens of thousands of dollars per prisoner per year required to run prisons.

Saving money by releasing prisoners early, however, could prove detrimental to Jackson County if lower inmate numbers lead to the closure of one of its prisons.

The state shuttered multiple prisons in recent years as the statewide inmate population declined, falling from a high of 50,000 prisoners in 2007 to about 32,000 today.

MDOC does not anticipate additional prison closures, but such a closure “can potentially have a significant impact on a local community” as some jobs are permanently eliminated, resulting in a reduction in overall economic activity in the community, Kaminski said.

Jackson County’s four facilities ― the most of any county in the state ― supply a combined 1,800 jobs, although not all positions are currently filled. Jackson prisons accounted for $146 million of the state’s nearly $1.9 billion in gross prison expenditures in 2021, the most recent year for which the MDOC provides data in its annual reports.

Opportunities for change

Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka applauded opportunities for offenders to change their ways. But that opportunity already exists, both within the prison system and written into Michigan law as it stands now, he said.

When the state in the 1990s instituted its “truth in sentencing” rules, it also lowered recommended sentences for many crimes, Jarzynka said.

Current sentencing guidelines steer most low-level and first-time offenders toward alternatives to incarceration or county jail sentences of a year or less.

That means, the prosecutor said, that the vast majority of people in prison, especially those serving the longest terms, have committed multiple, violent crimes and already had a chance to do better.

Those motivated to leave prison better than they came in already have that opportunity, Jarzynka said. The MDOC offers numerous ways for inmates to earn academic degrees, improve their mental health and social interaction habits, and gain job skills.

About 1,700 inmates statewide completed employment readiness programs in 2021, with more than 11,000 inmates on waiting lists for those programs, including more than 3,000 in Jackson County’s four prisons.

A Vocational Village, located inside the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, teaches qualifying inmates high-demand trades, from tree trimming to auto mechanics to computer coding. At other prisons, inmates train dogs, make mattresses, and transcribe books into braille.

Offender Success, an MDOC-connected program with agencies in every region of the state, helps people on parole write resumes, budget their finances, apply for benefits, and walk through other steps crucial to a successful transition from prison.

While prisons prepare offenders for release and courts use non-prison sentencing alternatives when appropriate, the community can ― and should ― provide the best chance of success for parolees entering the community, whether prison reform bills pass or not, Jarzynka said.

A Returning Citizen Services map, created through a collaboration between MDOC and the Calvin Prison Institute, lists 85 individuals or outlets in Jackson County providing services that support people leaving prison, from food and clothing assistance to health care, from people offering financial literacy classes to churches that make people with criminal records feel welcome.

Residents and businesses can impact their community’s safety by taking a chance on those with criminal records, said Hirst.

“They just suffered the consequences by going to prison,” Hirst said. “So let’s give them a chance to make it in the real world.”

Jackson County Prisons

* Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center

Security level 2 and 5

Capacity: 1,240 inmates

Intake facility for adults after sentencing. Inmates are screened, assessed, classified and held temporarily, pending assignment to another Michigan prison.

* Cooper Street Correctional Facility

Security level 1

Capacity: 1,602 inmates

Release facility for inmates preparing for parole, discharge, or transfer to community center placement. Home of a Special Alternative Incarceration program, a “regimented 90-day intensive program that focuses on changing negative behavior into socially acceptable behavior.”

* G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility

Security level 1, 2, and 4

Capacity: 1,756 inmates

Like other prisons, offers an array of programming, including GED preparation, Jackson College classes, anti-violence classes, and a Leader Dog for the Blind program.

* Parnall Correctional Facility

Security Level 1

Capacity: 1,680 inmates

Operates the Vocational Village, with a capacity for 240 vocational trade students receiving training in carpentry, robotics, masonry, and other high-demand trades.

Source: Michigan Department of Corrections

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