The COVID-19 crisis presents an unprecedented challenge to our country that touches on all aspects of our society, including the criminal justice system. Knowing that there is broad public support for protecting incarcerated people in Michigan prisons will help us advise state decision-makers, and helps those elected leaders feel confident as they make their choices. Despite public support, releasing people from prison before they reach parole eligibility is complicated because of Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing laws.
An earlier blog detailed research conducted by Data for Progress showing public support for several recommendations Safe & Just Michigan had signed on to. However, as the COVID-19 crisis continues, there is a need for more serious action to reduce the number of people in Michigan prisons. Last week, Safe & Just Michigan’s Executive Director, John S. Cooper, released a statement regarding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to not take executive action to release more people from prison.
Using the findings from Data for Progress, there is evidence for support of more widespread considerations. The research conducted by Data for Progress was examining public opinion around The Justice Collaborative’s Covid-19 Decarceral Guidelines. Over 2,500 likely voters were surveyed, asking if they supported a variety of initiatives to reduce the prison and jail populations. The results were weighted the results to accurately reflect U.S. demographics and voting patterns by Data for Progress and have been further condensed here for ease of interpretation. The results show clear cross-ideological support for the release for those close to parole, and those considered vulnerable to COVID-19.
Reducing prison populations for safety
A broad question asked of respondents was which of these statements better fit their opinion
Public officials SHOULD be considering measures to reduce overcrowding as a response to coronavirus, or
Public officials should NOT be considering measures to reduce overcrowding as a response to coronavirus.
There is clear, cross-ideological support for the consideration of release of incarcerated persons to reduce overcrowding in correctional facilities as a response to the coronavirus. This question was a “forced choice,” meaning there was no option to not give a substantive answer such as “don’t know.” Two-thirds of respondents, regardless of their political ideology, responded that public officials should consider measures to reduce overcrowding as a response to the virus. Even broken down by political ideology there is strong support, ranging from 79 percent of people who identified as liberal to 65 percent and 59 percent of moderates and conservatives, respectively.
Consideration for people near parole
A more specific question on the release of those nearing the completion of their sentence reveals support as well. Respondents were asked if they supported or opposed the following initiative:
Releasing incarcerated people who are within six months of completing their sentence in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus within jails and prisons.
With this more specific initiative, there is still more than 50 percent support total and across ideology. The overall support is 56 percent, which is 10 percent less than there was for the broader suggestion above. Like the chart above, the highest levels of support come from respondents who are identified as liberal, and slightly lower levels of support from those identified as moderate and conservative.
The trouble with “Truth”
Despite evidence of support the release of people close to the completion of their sentence, there are substantial barriers to implementing such a solution in Michigan. One of the barriers is Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law, one of the strictest in the country, that requires a person to serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence in a secure facility before they are eligible for parole. Most states, and even the federal system, allow for “time off for good behavior,” or another mechanism to reduce the time spent in prison. Further, the minimum sentence must be served in a “secured correctional facility” for the duration of a person’s minimum sentence. As defined in the legislation’s analysis secured correctional facilities requires following:
- The facility was enclosed by a locked fence or wall designed to prevent prisoners from leaving the enclosed premises and was patrolled by correctional officers (Note: these definitions use the state’s terms, not SJM’s preferred human-centered language.)
- Prisoners were restricted to the area inside the fence or wall.
- Prisoners were under guard by correctional officers seven days per week, 24 hours per day.
This essentially says the only place a minimum sentence can be served is in a correctional facility. Halfway houses or other residential placement in the community do not qualify. That has become a serious complication during the COVID-19 crisis as it precludes people short of their minimum sentence from being released to house arrest or to medical care facilities.
Due to these complexities of Michigan law, the only way people who are incarcerated and not currently eligible for parole can be released is through executive action by the governor. As emphasized in statement above, to reduce the further spread of COVID-19, the governor has several options such as expanding the parole board and using her emergency and clemency powers.
To learn more about Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing laws, please join us Wednesday, April 29, at noon for an online learning opportunity. Our Executive Director, John S. Cooper, will moderate a panel of experts, including
- Jessica Zimbelman, Assistant Defender for State Appellate Defender Office
- Amani Sawari, a Roddenberry Foundation fellow leading a ballot initiative to repeal Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law
- Anne Mahar, Ph.D., Research Specialist for Safe & Just Michigan
We hope you’ll be able to join us. Please click here to register and get the Zoom info.
~ Anne Mahar, Ph.D.