Prisoner ReEntry Initiative Transforming Corrections
New Michigan program serves as model for other states
by Jeffrey D. Padden
December 16, 2009
Jose Loera was released from prison in May after serving five years for selling cocaine. He’s determined not to return — and to steer young people away from a life of crime.
Life on the outside has been an adjustment, but he told the Muskegon Chronicle he credits God and the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI) with putting him on the right path.
“I want to leave a positive legacy to help kids get out of trouble. I’d like to enlighten kids that prison ain’t all it seems to be,” said Loera, who was once a youth football coach and has four adult children, including a son serving in Afghanistan. “No one told us about all the misery.”
Across Michigan, thousands of parolees like Loera are getting the support and supervision they need to succeed through MPRI, an ambitious effort that has transformed state government’s largest department and is saving taxpayer dollars. But the main goal is to make communities safer. Success stories like this are becoming more common, which is great news for the people of Michigan. Make no mistake: no program can eliminate crime by former prisoners. MPRI is proving, however, that it can be reduced, even dramatically.
Despite having to address budget challenges brought about by, among other things, a decline in the manufacturing sector and a national recession, it is Governor Jennifer Granholm’s successful effort to overhaul a broken corrections system that could well be her signature accomplishment. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials have tapped decades of research to put together what may be the most comprehensive reform in the nation.
And while parole policies have been the target of intense criticism from politicians seeking to score political points and some corrections officers upset that prison closings will eliminate prison jobs, MPRI has gained national recognition as “the gold standard” for prisoner re-entry.
The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center recently tapped Le’Ann Duran, who managed MDOC’s Office of Offender Reentry, to head its new National ReEntry Resource Center. The new center will help states, local governments, and tribes develop re-entry systems.
Corrections Director Patricia Caruso says corrections officials around the nation are taking notice of MPRI.
“People everywhere in the country ask me what’s going on here and how we are doing it,” Caruso told the Detroit Free Press recently. “They look at Michigan as a leader.”
The Initiative begins with the recognition that the old system of locking people up for long periods of time and then releasing them with minimal support was failing. Gov. Granholm recognized that as a candidate for governor. “Preventing new crimes by offenders being released from prison is a challenge that must be met by Michigan’s law enforcement community,” she said in her 2002 campaign platform, Securing Michigan’s Future. “Arrangements for post prison transition must deal realistically with the poor coping skills that contribute to offenders’ return to prison…We must make certain that as our prison system punishes, it also provides full opportunities for offender rehabilitation — particularly as offenders are near their release.’’
Her election signaled a major shift in policy and, eventually, an end to prison expansion that squeezed other priorities out of the state budget.
Michigan’s massive prison buildup began in the early 1980s, after the high-profile murder of an East Lansing police officer and a Meridian Township woman. Governor James J. Blanchard made tough-on-crime policies a core part of his agenda. After a heinous series of murders by a paroled rapist in the early 1990s, Governor John M. Engler overhauled the parole system to allow him to appoint parole board members — ones he knew would grant fewer paroles.
Those actions, along with other laws and policies, put and kept more people behind bars for longer periods. In the 1990s, Michigan lawmakers, as well as those in other states, were tripping over each other to see who could be toughest on crime. They enacted Truth-in Sentencing, mandatory minimums and other laws, while eliminating training programs, halfway houses and work-release programs designed to foster successful transitions to society.
The policies spawned a jobs program for the prison industry — Corrections became the largest state department — but did minimal good at making Michigan residents any safer. The crime rate went down at roughly the same rate as it did in other states with lower incarceration rates.
Meanwhile, Corrections costs were exploding at the expense of other parts of the budget. Michigan became one of a handful of states investing more money in prisons than higher education — not a recipe for economic recovery.
Granholm, a former prosecutor herself, included Elizabeth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime & Delinquency, and Dennis Schrantz from the Wayne County Department of Community Justice on her campaign and transition teams. Schrantz soon became deputy director of MDOC, and both played key roles in moving MPRI to the drawing board and then into practice.
Planners built the model in large part on research from the National Institute of Corrections Transition from Prison to Community Initiative. Both the NIC and the National Governors Association provided technical assistance to the MPRI Advisory Council that began work in October 2003.
MPRI was launched with eight pilot sites in 2005. A steering team led by co-chairs representing prisons, parole supervisors and the community designed a framework to meet local needs. The JEHT Foundation awarded a grant to hire community coordinators who, often working in parole offices, began pulling local resources together.
The first sites generally covered a single county but were soon expanded. Seven additional sites were added the following year. By 2008, MPRI was operating in 18 regions covering all 83 counties.
At the core, the Initiative is built on the intuitive and research-supported premise that returning prisoners will have a better chance to succeed — and obey the law — if they are provided with support and supervision, than if they aren’t. It doesn’t create a new bureaucracy; instead, community coordinators pull together existing resources and help fill gaps with MPRI grants.
Prisoners are assessed at the start of their terms to determine weaknesses and risk factors, as well as strengths to build on. Individual Transition Accountability Plans are developed to address issues, and inmates’ adherence to those plans is a significant factor in parole decisions by the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board. Board members have much better information about prisoners, their efforts to rehabilitate themselves, and their prospects for success.
Before prisoners are released to the community they are transferred to “inreach facilities,” which are prisons closer to home. A community-based team, led by the parole agent, works with them to plan for their release.
The new system changes the system in big ways and small. For example, prisoners are no longer released on Fridays, a day that gave parolees a weekend to get in trouble before seeing their parole agent.
But the big change was the collaborative team approach, where community agencies work together to maximize parolees’ chances for success. Michigan Works! offices and other agencies, such as Goodwill and Peckham, help parolees find jobs or access to the education and training they need to become employable. Community coordinators recruit businesses and offer short-term subsidized employment to encourage employers to give returning prisoners a second chance.
Housing specialists make sure returning prisoners have a stable place to live, which is critical to success. “Last time they let me out, they put me in (a rescue mission) and told me to fend for myself,” one inmate told the Oakland Press. This time, he lives in a house in Pontiac and does maintenance work for the MPRI facility, a job that helps him pay the rent.
MPRI has also given parolees access to needed substance abuse treatment and mental health services, including medication.
And just as important, MPRI enhances supervision. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, for instance, is one of many law enforcement agencies that partner with parole agents to make unannounced checks on parolees.
In Detroit, a police department mini-station doubles as an MPRI clothing closet, where some officers have literally given parolees the shirts off their backs. In Grand Rapids, police helped set up a straight-talk event at a local theater, where prisoners offered sober warnings to young people.
Religious institutions and other community groups have played a major role as well, providing mentors to help guide prisoners along successful paths.
More than 20,000 prisoners have been paroled through MPRI, which is targeted at medium- and high-risk prisoners where intervention is most important. All prisoners now undergo risk assessments when they enter prison, a critical step in rehabilitation. And efforts are under way to implement programs in the prison to better address prisoners’ weaknesses and underlying risk factors.
It is difficult to precisely measure the impact of a government transformation as comprehensive as the MPRI. But all the signs point in the right direction.
Before MPRI was launched, one in two parolees was returning to prison within two years, either for new crimes or parole violations. That fraction has been reduced to one in three. It appears that MPRI is preventing crime and making our neighborhoods safer. A deeper, more robust evaluation of MPRI will begin next year, and the results will better document the results and point the way toward possible improvements.
Because MPRI has allowed the Parole Board to more confidently grant paroles in cases where it might previously have issued knee-jerk denials, the state is finally starting to rein in Corrections costs.
The fiscal 2010 MDOC budget is $1.93 billion — large, but slightly less than a year ago. And the prison population has declined for the past three years.
The success of MPRI hasn’t quieted some critics, including those who seek to score political points leading up to the 2010 election. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, a Republican candidate for governor, and former Appeals Court Judge Bill Schuette, who is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general, are among those claiming that parole policies are endangering the public. There is no evidence to support this — improved return-to-prison rates both for technical violations and for new crimes point to the opposite conclusion.
Some critics suggest that MPRI should be limited to non-violent offenders. But that misses the point that law-abiding citizens have a great stake in improving the behavior of parolees with a violent past. And remember this: more than 90 percent of all prisoners — including violent felons — eventually return home. They — and the general public — stand to benefit from MPRI support and supervision.
Some also express alarm at the fact that more sex offenders are being paroled. MPRI officials say that the critics fail to recognize that sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates, and that sex offenders are getting more effective treatment as well as improved supervision.
Perhaps the most troubling criticism comes from those who falsely claim that MPRI is an “early release program.” In fact, Michigan lawmakers banned early release years ago, and all prisoners must serve the sentence imposed by the judge — with the tacit or explicit sign off of the prosecutor — before being eligible for parole.
It is true that the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board is approving paroles at a higher rate than it has in the past — not to put dangerous people on the streets, but because it has better information to make decisions as well as the knowledge that community programs are in place to help parolees succeed.
Duran, who helped Michigan build its re-entry program and is now helping other states do the same, says the state’s reputation as a leader is well deserved.
“Once you get out of the state, it’s amazing to see how much has been accomplished in Michigan through the MPRI,” Ms. Duran said. “In the middle of the state dynamics and the hard work of implementing the model, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s been accomplished. But stepping back, so much has been happening that is moving the model forward.”
Jeffrey D. Padden is president of Lansing-based Public Policy Associates, Inc., which is a partner in MPRI with the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Michigan Council on Crime & Delinquency. He is a former state representative.