The Michigan Jail Task Force on Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration made 18 recommendations that were turned into legislation. In the last weeks of 2020, the Michigan Legislature passed that legislation and changed the laws but more importantly it will change hundreds of thousands of Michiganders lives for the better. Some of this legislation focused on state and local supervision of people returning home from a period of incarceration.
Parole and probation are things that I have had to learn a lot about — often the hard way. Between state and federal probation and state parole, I spent roughly eight years under some form of supervision. What I found throughout my time under supervision is that historically, it has been an adversarial process between those in authority and those under authority. Thankfully, the new laws should make the probation and parole systems more effective for everyone — both people under supervision, those who supervise, and everyone who wants to live in safer communities.
For people who have not been involved with the system, a quick review of parole and probation is in order. Probation — administered at the county level — is a sentence a judge orders for minor offenses like a misdemeanor. Parole — administered by the state — is only applied in Michigan if you served your minimum prison sentence but not your maximum sentence. In both cases, stipulations and requirements are often put on the person released, such as requiring them to undergo substance use counseling, find a job and avoid other people with criminal records. There are often expensive requirements, such as paying for your own monitoring, supervision, and drug testing. These many requirements often lead to people violating their terms of parole or probation, which causes many people to be sent — or sent back to — prison.
The jails task force wanted to tackle this problem because they discovered that too many people in Michigan are having their parole and probation revoked for minor offenses. This increases our prison population and leads many people to lose their freedom for minor offenses that did not make our communities unsafe in the first place. Incarceration does not improve community safety.
When I reflect on my multiple stints on probation and parole, I realized that I was violated — which means I was arrested and sentenced to jail or prison for breaking the conditions of probation ordered by a judge — every time except for my last parole. I was a young man who was hurting and did not possess the skills or tools to really explain how I was feeling and why I was feeling that way. I coped by abusing alcohol and drugs from a young age.
It is not by happenstance that all my parole and probation violations were drug- or alcohol-related. It seemed to be standard operating procedure for parole and probation that when you “dropped dirty” — meaning you failed drug test — you were violated and sent to a rehabilitation facility. The biggest problem with this approach is your freedom was dependent on completing the program.
When I was sent to prison, it was because of violating my probation. Even though the sentencing guidelines were 12-24 months, the judge disregarded the guidelines and sentenced me to four years. What I later realized was when she gave me the four year sentence, it insured I would be held in a cage for at least two years before I would be eligible to return to my community to find work, a place to live and to start my life over. All that over a probation violation.
Many of the problems in the parole and probation system could be avoided if people were treated as individuals rather than case numbers. Fortunately, the new laws inspired by the work of the jails task force do exactly that. They require terms of parole and probation to be tailored to the individual, and if a parole violation occurs, gives a person an opportunity to talk about what happened with a parole board member.
If someone has been accused of violating the terms of their parole or probation, having the opportunity to discuss the matter would ensure that only serious violations are cause to revoke freedom. This is another step in the right direction. It also allows men and women adequate time to defend themselves from any alleged violations. Based on the findings, the board member may order additional conditions of parole and services to help the person transition back with a greater chance of success instead of returning them to incarceration. Conditions of parole must be individualized because we are all individuals, and there is no cookie cutter solution to successful reintegration.
Safe & Just of Michigan supports these reforms because these new laws help support and safer and more just Michigan for all. A tailored approach to justice allows people to find the support and services that they need to be successful in the community.
Community Engagement Specialist