Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Despite growing bipartisan support for corrections reform, some state Republicans are wary of reforms affecting juvenile sentencing and parole.
Nearly 1,000 of the roughly 49,000 inmates of the Michigan Department of Corrections have served more than 10 years for crimes they committed while under 18. And nearly 350 of them are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as children.
The youthful-offender parole reform bill (SB 174), which is tied to a bill to end juvenile life-without-parole sentences (SB 173), passed the House last year and was reintroduced this session in the Senate. The bills are now before the Judiciary Committee, which has yet to take action on the legislation.
The measure would allow a parole board, after 10 years, to evaluate the cases of some juvenile offenders who are serving sentences of more than 10 years or serving life sentences or life without parole. Currently, those serving life are eligible for parole after 15 years; those serving life without parole are ineligible.
Efren Paredes Jr., 35, is the most widely known of the inmates who could be affected by the legislation.
Paredes was a 15-year-old honor student with no criminal record when he was convicted of a 1989 murder and robbery in St. Joseph. He was sentenced to three life sentences without parole.
Throughout his imprisonment at Jackson and other state prison facilities, he has maintained his innocence. Paredes received his GED at 16, enrolled in college courses and has worked since 1995 translating textbooks into Braille.
In February, the city council in Berkeley, Calif., passed a resolution calling for the end of juvenile-life-without-parole sentencing and for the commutation of Parades’ sentence.
Also last month, a parole board heard more than eight hours of testimony at a hearing where Paredes sought commutation of his sentence. Russ Marlin, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that parole board members are expected to issue a recommendation this month.
The passage of the juvenile-life-without-parole legislative package would allow Paredes, and others in his class, to be considered for parole.
Velia Koppenhoefer, Paredes’ mother, continues to press for her son’s release and is pressing for reform. She said via email:
Efren will be imprisoned for a complete 20 years on March 15. With all he has accomplished in his life while incarcerated, his outpouring of nationwide support, as well as having home placement and guaranteed employment if released, he would have been an excellent candidate for release long before now.
The key things to understand about the pending Senate Bills which seek to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles (i.e., Senate Bills 173-176) is that they do not release a single prisoner. There is a big misconception among people that the bills will release people and that is simply not true.State Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), who serves on the Judiciary Committee, is not in favor of passing the juvenile sentencing bills out of his committee. The lawmaker said he was unfamiliar with the case of Efren Paredes and noted that the juvenile sentencing package is unlikely to advance through the Judiciary Committee “until someone shows us why it should move.”
Among his objections, he said, is his skepticism about the cost savings claims associated with the measure.
An analysis conducted by the Legislature last year found that Michigan could save up to $6.3 million per year by allowing juvenile offenders who are serving sentences of more than 10 years to be reviewed for parole.
Also, a recent state-commissioned report by the Council of State Governments noted that Michigan’s high corrections costs — now 20 percent of the total state budget — are a result of long prison sentences. The average prisoner serves 127 percent of his or her minimum sentence, before being granted parole. The report recommended that inmates be evaluated for parole after serving the minimum sentence, adding that this could save $90.7 million and reduce the prison population by more than 4,000 inmates by 2015. These recommendations have received bipartisan support.
But Cropsey said that increasing parole review for juveniles serving long sentences and ending life without parole for juveniles is unlikely to reduce the prison population.
“You can talk about it theoretically, but when you start talking about the facts of a case, when you open up a file and look at the victims, you think, ‘This is not a good risk.‘”
Parole boards are unlikely to release people convicted of such horrible crimes, he said, and the governor has the power to commute sentences in rare cases where appropriate.
When state law was revised in 1988 to allow the sentencing of younger people to long prison terms in adult incarceration, he was initially disturbed, Cropsey said.
He said he thought: “Now, this is nuts. Are we just going to do away with the eight- and nine-year-olds?”
But his worries about very young people doing hard time were calmed by the introduction of successful legislation that allows probate judges to decide whether to sentence young people as juveniles or as adults, he added.
“This increased discretion fixes the problem,” he said. “We have life without parole here instead of the death penalty.”
Cropsey said that he was open to sitting down with anyone with information about a case that might change his mind about the package.
“I am a conservative Republican, basically a law-and-order type, but I’m also a man of faith,” he said, “Can people change? Yes, people can change.”