A brief guide to Michigan’s sentencing system and the role of the Michigan Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 1998-2002:

In Michigan’s system of indeterminate sentencing, each branch of government has a role.

  • The Legislature sets the maximum penalty for each type of offense.
  • The trial judge sets the minimum sentence the particular defendant must serve.
  • The parole board decides when a prisoner who has served the minimum sentence will actually be released.

In 1998, the Legislature adopted sentencing guidelines, developed by a special commission, that limit how judges can exercise their discretion. The guidelines are designed to ensure that the punishment is proportional to the crime, and that people with similar prior records, who have committed similar offenses, are similarly treated.

  • The guidelines award points according to the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. The total number of points determines the sentencing range.
  • Judges must select a minimum sentence within the guidelines range, unless they have a substantial and compelling reason to depart.
  • Departures, which cannot be based on factors already counted in the guidelines, may be appealed to a higher court.
  • Under the guidelines, less serious offenders are “locked out” of prison and must be sentenced to community-based sanctions. At the other extreme, prison terms for the most serious offenders increased. And some defendants fall in “straddle cells” that allow the judge to decide whether a prison term or alternative sanction is appropriate.

In deciding who should stay in prison, for how long, the Legislature considered the capacity of the state prison system.

The sentencing commission was supposed to review the guidelines periodically and recommend any needed revisions.  However, the Commission was abolished in 2002 and no systematic assessment has been done of how the guidelines are actually working.

For many serious offenses, Michigan allows a sentence of “life or any term”. For these offenses, the judge picks both the minimum and maximum, or imposes a parolable life term. The Legislature has determined that these lifers are eligible for parole after serving either 10 or 15 years, depending on the offense date, and may be released unless the sentencing judge objects.

“Truth in Sentencing”

Also in 1998, the Legislature adopted “truth in sentencing” provisions that require prisoners sentenced after the effective date to serve every day of the judicially imposed minimum term in a secure facility. The purpose was to ensure that victims and the general public feel confident a minimum prison term is what it appears to be.

“Truth in sentencing” had two major consequences. It prohibited awarding any form of credit for good behavior or program participation.  This increased the average length of stay for prisoners who are behaving properly.  Second, it caused the eventual demise of the Community Residential Program (CRP) which had allowed carefully screened prisoners nearing their first parole eligibility date to re-enter the community under close supervision at corrections centers or on electronic monitoring. At its height, there were 3,500 prisoners in CRP.