Something genuinely exciting happened this past week in the Michigan House of Representatives:

The first real substantive piece of legislation to address mass incarceration passed the House on a 67-39 vote - “presumptive parole” HB 4138, sponsored by Rep. Kurt Heise, R- Plymouth with bi-partisan co-sponsors Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, Rep. Stephanie Chang, D–Detroit, Rep. Michael Webber, R–Rochester, and Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs.

Several studies, including the 2013 state-commissioned report by the Council of State Governments, have identified that the length of stay of prisoners contribute substantially to the cost of our prison system with no positive effect on recidivism, risk and safety.

Michigan’s sentencing guidelines in combination with very stringent parole board guidelines have resulted in about 1,900 prisoners who have scored a high probability for parole but who are nonetheless denied. In 2012, there were 1,550 such prisoners serving an average of 2.6 years past their earliest parole date.

In addition to the increased cost to the state of roughly $300 million per year, such uncertainty works against motivation for self-improvement as prisoners do not understand or know what they can do to demonstrate they are ready for release.

Under a policy of presumptive parole as defined in HB 4138, absent specifically identified substantial and compelling reasons for denial, a prisoner would have to be paroled upon reaching their earliest parole date, which is generally the completion of their minimum sentence under Michigan’s sentencing guidelines.

This vote was (in terms of inside-Lansing politics) historic because of the line-up of supporters and the opposition we overcame. In addition to the ACLU and the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan (CDAM), and the outstanding contribution to this issue by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Spending (CAPPS), the bill was actively supported by the National Coalition for Public Safety comprised of members from the political right and left – ACLU, Americans for Tax Reform, Center for American Progress, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Freedom Works, Leadership Conference Education Fund, NAACP, and Right on Crime.

The opposition came from the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office – a trifecta against which we seldom prevail. 

This is not only the beginning of a serious effort to enact meaningful reforms that will affect not only cost, but it gives us the platform to address systemic racism, prison conditions, and rehabilitation over retribution.

There is no doubt that we are still climbing uphill. The Senate Republican caucus is more disciplined and beholden to the AG’s traditional--and sorely outdated--“tough on crime” mantra.

But, as more unusual bedfellows from all points on the political and ideological spectrum set aside their institutional ego’s to work together for our greater good, Schuette's mantra may not hold up as it has in the past

By Shelli Weisberg, Legislative Director for the ACLU of Michigan