Gov. Rick Snyder is changing the size and makeup of the Michigan parole board, undoing many of the changes his predecessor put in place to speed up the release of prison inmates eligible for parole.
Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm abolished the 10-member Parole Board in early 2009 and transferred its power to the new 15-member Parole and Commutation Board. She wanted to accelerate the board's review of 12,000 prisoners serving beyond their earliest release date so more could be paroled, saving the state money.
In the executive order he signed Monday, the new Republican governor abolished Granholm's parole board and the seven-member Executive Clemency Advisory Council. The new board will have 10 members appointed by the corrections director, not the governor, to four-year terms, and some of the board members can be corrections employees.
The change will take effect April 15.
Granholm's decision to aggressively release prisoners eligible for parole didn't sit well with some law enforcement officials and GOP lawmakers, who argued the move would gut Michigan's truth in sentencing laws and allow some prisoners to be freed before they served their minimum sentences.
Granholm based her decision on a recommendation by outside experts who spent a year examining crime and punishment in Michigan. They found that Michigan incarcerates people at a higher rate and pays corrections workers higher salaries compared with other Great Lakes states, currently costing the state $1.9 billion a year, more than a quarter of the general fund budget.
Granholm was eager to get costs under control by bringing Michigan's prison population more in line with surrounding states. Under her executive order, the Parole and Commutation Board was allowed to hold inmates beyond 120 percent of their minimum sentence only if they posed a "very high" risk of re-offending. Before that, the average time inmates served was nearly 140 percent of their minimum sentence.
Serious offenders such as rapists and murderers were excluded from the policy.
The change succeeded in driving down the number of prisoners incarcerated, despite complaints from some prosecutors that they were denied information about planned interviews with parole candidates early enough to appeal certain cases.
As of last Friday, the state's prisons held 43,917 inmates, Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said.
That's a 15 percent drop from the all-time peak of 51,554 held in March 2007, and an 8.5 percent drop from the roughly 48,000 inmates incarcerated when Granholm changed the makeup of the parole board.
Now, with more than 3,500 inmates released since early 2009, there are far fewer parolees to review, Marlan said.
"We believe that there's not a current work load to keep 15 members on" the parole board, he added.
Snyder said in a release that returning to a 10-member board appointed by the corrections director "will remove an unneeded layer of bureaucracy and save taxpayers money."
"We need to let the professionals in the Corrections Department determine whether it's appropriate to release prisoners," he added.
Although the changes may result in fewer inmates being paroled, Snyder could try to lower corrections costs by suggesting cuts in state workers' pay or benefits when he releases his 2011-12 budget proposal on Feb. 17. The Corrections Department employs nearly a third of all state workers.