On Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, John Cooper, our associate director of policy & research, traveled to Lakeland Correctional Facility to present at the monthly meeting of Chapter #1013 of the National Lifers of America organization (“NLA”).  NLA is a statewide prisoner-based organization with an active membership in many prisons in Michigan. Its purpose is to educate the public on restorative justice, state laws and Michigan Department of Correction (MDOC) policies that impact the state’s incarcerated population.

Michigan has a disproportionately large percentage of incarcerated people serving life sentences or very long minimum sentences:

  • About 10 percent of Michigan’s prison population (or about 3,800 people) are serving life without the possibility of parole;
  • Approximately 25 percent of Michigan’s prison population is serving a sentence of either life or a minimum of 25 years or more;
  • More than 900 people are serving life with the possibility of parole are currently eligible for parole, and many have served decades longer than they were required to by law;
  • About 850 incarcerated people in Michigan are “medically frail” (i.e. mentally or physically incapacitated); and
  • Michigan has the oldest prison population in the country, with an average age of 39 years old).

Lakeland has a large lifer population, and the people incarcerated there have oldest average age of all incarcerated people in Michigan at nearly 50 years old.  Consistent with this, Lakeland also has a large and active NLA chapter.  About 100 people attended the meeting, which began with a greeting, reading of NLA’s mission statement, and an introduction by chapter #1013’s president, about why civic participation — including voting and advocacy by returning citizens, families of incarcerated people and others impacted by the justice system — is crucial to criminal justice reform.

In his own remarks that followed, John echoed these comments and expanded on them. He emphasized that mass incarceration was built and is maintained by policy decisions, while the people most affected by those decisions had little say in how those laws were made or the politics around crime and safety. When it comes to changing the system, John said it is crucial to change how people think and feel about crime and safety — especially assaultive crime — which labels people in prison as “bad” and “dangerous” rather than as people who are redeemable and capable of change.

John then discussed the implications of the recent elections, recent criminal justice reforms, pending criminal justice bills, and the policy initiatives that are likely to come up during the 2019-20 legislative session.

In all, Mr. Cooper spoke for about half an hour, and then fielded over an hour of questions from the group.  These questions focused on a variety of subjects, including the potential to restore “good time” or some other form of earned credits to reduce sentence lengths, the extent to which brain science is not reflected in sentencing practices and how it could be incorporated, the parole process for parolable lifers and potential policy proposals to address the large and growing population of incarcerated people serving life without parole and very long minimum sentences.

One proposal in particular that generated a significant amount of interest is converting all sentences to parolable after a period of years (e.g. 15, 20, 25).  A number of scholars and advocates have proposed this change in response to rising length of stay and populations of people serving life and virtual life sentences.

John received a very warm reception from NLA Chapter #1013, and thanks them for the invitation to speak and for their hospitality.