Michigan Parole Bill Would Revise Standards for Prisoner Release

House bill 5273 would restrict certain vetoes

In Michigan, prisoners who become eligible for parole begin a process that determines whether they will go free or remain behind bars. A proposed law, House Bill 5273 from Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, would slightly change the process for those serving long criminal sentences.

There are many steps involved in determining whether eligible people convicted in “lifer law” cases (crimes with long sentences outside of first-degree murder) can obtain parole. When a prisoner is up for parole and files for a review, one of the 10 parole board members is assigned to do a preliminary interview. That member can then recommend a public hearing, and a majority of the full parole board must vote on whether to hold it. If at least 6 of the 10 vote for a public hearing, a letter is sent to the prosecutor’s office and court where the prisoner was convicted. The sentencing judge, or that person's successor, has 30 days to veto the hearing. If the judge vetoes the hearing, parole is denied for another five years. If the hearing is not vetoed, the full board holds a public hearing, at which a majority may vote to grant parole.

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Currently, the original sentencing judge (and any successor judge) can veto parole. Pagel’s bill would prevent successor judges from issuing a veto, though they would still be able to weigh in with their thoughts.

“This bill will correct an unjust situation that exists within our criminal justice system,” Pagel said. “It will prevent successor judges from being put in the difficult situation of passing judgment on an old case that they never heard, and will allow the parole process to work as intended. It does not fast-track any prisoner towards parole, but merely allows them fair access to the possibility of being considered for parole.”

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan is not currently taking a position on the bill, but President Mike Wendling said the association believes that the successor judge can still provide valuable input for the parole process.

“The ability for a judge or a successor judge to have an opinion or to veto or have an opportunity to address the [situation] for those defendants we think is important,” said Wendling, who is also the St. Clair County prosecutor. “Anything that gives the opportunity for a victim to have more exposure in the decisions as it relates to the sentencing we’re in favor of.”

Wendling noted the successor judge is often the representative for the community that was affected by the crime.

Right on Crime, a conservative group advocating for criminal justice reform on the national level, is generally supportive of the legislation. Michael Haugen, a staff writer with the group, said he believes the bill does “a good balancing (job) between judicial discretion and the prerogative of the executive.” He also noted that even a successor judge could still have a significant influence on the parole board, even without a veto.

The Michigan Legislature has been making some changes to the criminal justice system over the past few years. Civil forfeiture laws have been changed, the state eliminated hundreds of laws from the books, and a “mens rea” provision has been added to the criminal code to better protect citizens who unknowingly violate the law. Other proposed policy changes to sentencing laws and presumptive parole are also being debated.


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