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How Does Parole Work During A Pandemic?

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As Michigan begins to reopen parts of the state in response to the coronavirus, the pandemic is still upending business as usual. One place expecting to see back logs of cases due to the pandemic is Michigan’s parole board. There’s also concerns about recidivism and access to resources. To learn more WKAR Morning Edition Host Mary Ellen Pitney spoke with Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
 

Who Gets Out?

So there were already hundreds and hundreds of paroles are already scheduled for work that was done late in the winter last year and earlier this year. There's a law called truth in sentencing, which says that you have to serve 100% of your minimum sentence before you can be eligible for parole. And in Michigan, we have 36,400 prisoners, and of those over 28,000 of them have yet to serve their minimum sentence.

There has been a push to quickly move people through the parole system in order to decrease jail and prison populations to prevent the spread of COVID 19. The parole process takes months to complete, so people being released are those who were selected for parole long before the pandemic began. Gautz said nobody will be paroled simply because of the pandemic, but they are working to clear the current backlog of cases.

What Happens?

It's just about making sure that they stay safe making sure that they continue to meet with their parole agent, but obviously in a different fashion now, because our parole officers are not open in the way that they typically are, our parole agents are going out and meeting with them in the community, going to their house, practicing social distancing

Usually, parole requires people to take steps like attending addiction counseling or work requirements are mandated upon release. Because of the pandemic, some of these requirements look different. For example, instead of being required to meet with a narcotics anonymous group in person, attendance to a virtual meeting could take the place of that. Gautz says the MDOC is working hard to ensure safety precautions are taken into account.

What About Recidivism?

we know that someone is released and those first 60 to 90 days that can be sort of the real danger zone where somebody They're going to stay on the right path, or fall back into their old habits and end up back in jail or back in prison. Usually the two biggest drivers of that are housing and employment. So right now, there's not a lot that we can do in terms of employment…We're really focused on housing, making sure they have the food and assistance that they need, and the emotional supports

Gautz says whenever large numbers of people are released from prison in a short amount of time, there is always a fear of increased recidivism. The most important factors that predict recidivism is if a person is able to find housing and employment in the first 60 to 90 days. The coronavirus pandemic has created complications here because so many people are out of work. Gautz hopes that as things begin to open back up people will be able to find work.

Full Transcript

MEP: Good morning, Chris.

CG: Good morning.

MEP: So let's just start with the simple question, Are people being released from prison or jail during the Coronavirus pandemic?

CG: The Parole Board and the release unit have been working overtime six days a week to do everything they can to parole those who are eligible for parole. The board has been going through those cases with a fine tooth comb, going case by case and finding those who we can parole starting with those who are elderly, and those who have chronic medical conditions and then working down the list from there.

MEP: How many have been released so far?

CG: Probably around 1500 or so I don't have the exact number in front of me. The issue is rolls typically take months in advance to do so typically when somebody is about to hit their earliest release date. the parole board is going to start meeting with them five to six months ahead of time to start that work and go through that process. And so obviously we've we're only two and a half months into this. So there were already hundreds and hundreds of paroles already scheduled for work that was done late in the winter last year and earlier this year. People are just now starting to get out. There's a law called truth in sentencing, which says that you have to serve 100% of your minimum sentence before you can be eligible for parole. And in Michigan, we have 36,400 prisoners, and of those over 28,000 of them have yet to serve their minimum sentence. So there's a large chunk that we have no control over in terms of who we can throw another 5000 or lifers. So that leaves us with 4000 prisoners who are eligible for parole right now.

MEP: So what it sounds like you're saying is you're not going to get released because there is a Coronavirus pandemic but you might be put on this track if you are already eligible, because the Coronavirus pandemic has made it more important that people get out of these high population prisons.

CG: Yeah, I think so. There are advocates who want lots of people to be released in prison if not, you know, all people to be released from prison. And then there are those who are worried that we're just releasing people out on the streets who are going to, you know, harm their family and their and their neighbors in general. We will release about 9000 prisoners every year on parole and right now Michigan has the lowest recidivism rate it's ever had in state history at 26.7%, which puts us in the top 10 in the country. So the board is doing a great job and it's evidenced by that fact.

MEP: This is WKAR I'm speaking with Chris gouts from the Michigan Department of Corrections about prison releases during the corona virus pandemic, a lot of the time, things like addiction counseling, staying at a halfway house Community Services, a lot of those things can be required by a judge that people do as part of their parole. What does that look like during this time?

CG: There are things that they can be required to do, you know, it would be up to the judge, though, if they're on probation, and they're put in into the community to determine what that reality is, if that's even possible. For us, when we release somebody from prison, we put them on parole, we control all of the aspects and so there wouldn't be any sort of community service pieces on our end that we'd they would be required to do, but it's really good. Just about making sure that they stay safe making sure that they continue to meet with their parole agent, but obviously in a different fashion now, because our parole officers are not open in the way that they typically are, our parole agents are going out and meeting with them in the community, going to their house, practicing social distancing. They have to do drug tests, things like that. And we found new ways to do that, to keep our agents safe well as the parolees and so that there's a lot that that's different in this sort of new world that we're all experiencing.

MEP: Any fears of increased recidivism.?

CG: Certainly there's always a fear, especially when you're releasing large numbers of prisoners in a very short amount of time. But again, our agents and the parole board are really focused on just releasing those who they have the most confidence are not going to be harmful if they're released. But then on the backside of the parole agents are doing everything they can in this really new environment to keep them from committing crimes, but we know that someone is released and those first 60 to 90 days that can be sort of the real danger zone where somebody They're going to stay on the right path, or fall back into their old habits and end up back in jail or back in prison. Usually the two biggest drivers of that are housing and employment. So right now, there's not a lot that we can do in terms of employment just because there aren't jobs now that most things are shut down. Most of the retail or the restaurant industry where a lot of people might find that first job to get into dontoh. So right now, we're really focused on housing, making sure they have the food and assistance that they need, and the emotional supports. And then hopefully, once things open back up, those parole agents will go back to their normal work as well doing all those things already, but also then focusing on employment and getting them into a full time job.

MEP: Chris Gautz, thank you so much for speaking with me

CG: Thank you.

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