Just a few months ago, it appeared as though legislators had no appetite for creating medically frail parole for incarcerated people in Michigan who can no longer accomplish regular daily tasks such as feeding or dressing themselves. After being diluted last year, the medically frail parole proposal finally made it out of the Michigan House of Representatives. Then, it was weakened again by a Senate committee, but then failed to make it make it through the Senate. As a result, the proposal died when the legislative session came to a close at the end of 2018.
But now, it appears that lawmakers are willing to give medically frail parole another chance.
The narrowed medically frail parole bills approved by the Senate committee have been reintroduced to the House and received a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 5. House Bills 4129-32 are not as strong a proposal as Safe & Just Michigan would prefer to see. If the bills are passed into law as they are currently written, they would immediately apply to only about 20-30 people, while there are an estimated 850 people in Michigan prisons who are considered to be medically frail.
The reason that the bills would apply to so few people is that they are written to exclude people who are sentenced to life without parole — namely, people convicted of first-degree murder — or people convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Keep in mind that being convicted of first-degree murder doesn’t necessarily mean someone has been convicted of actually pulling a trigger. There are people in prison on first-degree murder convictions who were sentenced to life in prison for being in the same car as the person who pulled the trigger, or for acting under the direction of an older and more dominant person. Because the life without parole sentence is mandatory, judges have no discretion to consider these mitigating factors.
While the overall number of people incarcerated in Michigan is falling, the proportion of people who are incarcerated on long sentences of 20 or more years is on the rise. As a result, our prison population is aging and incurring the kinds of health concerns anyone else encounters as they get older.
Health concerns such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s are at least as likely to occur in prison as they are to occur in the wider community, and our state is both morally and legally obligated to provide incarcerated people with treatment for their health challenges. That presents a considerable cost concern to taxpayers and a logistical challenge to the Michigan Department of Corrections, which has to adjust to accommodate an ever-growing number of incarcerated people who need dialysis, chemotherapy and memory care, among other health care treatments.
Medically frail parole is a common-sense solution to this problem. But to get the most benefit from it, the program should not be limited to just 20-30 people. People who are unable to tie their own shoes or take a shower unassisted are not posing a safety hazard to their community and there is no security need being served by keeping them incarcerated.
“Safe & Just Michigan urges the Legislature to amend this legislation to apply to all medically frail prisoners,” SJM Executive Director John Cooper wrote in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. “However, because we believe that creating a medical parole that is available to some prisoners is better than having no medical parole, we also support this legislation in its current form.”
Other organizations have voiced support of the proposal, including the ACLU of Michigan and the American Friends Service Committee, who — like SJM — would prefer to see a broader medically frail parole bill passed. However, some organizations that look out for the rights of seniors in nursing home institutions are concerned. They point out that patients in these homes are guaranteed certain rights, such as the rights to receive visitors or the right to leave the facility, that parolees would not have.
Notably, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan has come out as neutral on the proposal. This is important, because legislators take the opinion of this organization seriously as they consider how to proceed on the bill.
No vote was taken on the medically frail parole bills following the hearing, but it is likely that the House Judiciary Committee will take a vote on them in the future.