By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – A recent increase in paroled sex offenders is expected to continue into next year, Department of Corrections officials say.
Parole approval rates for sex offenders jumped from 21 percent in 2008 to 52.8 percent last year, according to Corrections.
The Parole Board is now looking at prisoners’ risk to the public rather than the crime they committed to determine eligibility for release, which means that more people were being released who previously weren’t, said Corrections Director Patricia Caruso.
Analyzing parole based on risk instead of the underlying crime should mean that approval continues to grow for inmates who normally wouldn’t receive parole, such as sex offenders, she said.
Elizabeth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said inmates who had already served at least 120 percent of their minimum sentence had a higher chance of parole, regardless of the crime.
The group seeks to improve the effectiveness of policies and systems aimed at crime prevention and control.
She said the Parole Board should look at prisoners individually and their behavior behind bars to determine eligibility, she said.
Most defendants go to prison as the result of a plea agreement, in which a judge and prosecutor agree on an appropriate minimum sentence, Arnovits continued.
She said the Parole Board seemed to be sentencing these inmates a second time by keeping them past their minimum term.
Caruso said a large number of prisoners could be safely paroled, but until recently “no one wanted to parole a sex offender.”
“When people return, oftentimes they’re not very welcomed,” said Rebecca Stieg, Central Michigan coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (MPRI) and a part of Michigan Works!. Her office serves eight counties, including Ionia, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm and Newaygo.
MPRI works with other organizations, such as Michigan Works!, to help prisoners with access to local resources so that they can successfully reintegrate into their community.
“Stigma is a problem, especially with individuals who have committed sex offenses in the past,” said Stieg, who is based in Big Rapids. “I think communities have a lot of misunderstandings around sex offenders in general.”
Public fear and concern surround the issue of parolees returning home, said Tom Hendrickson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It’s certainly a concern for local law enforcement,” he said. “The numbers of parolees generate the conceivable possibility that these people will commit further crimes.”
But Stieg emphasized statistics show that “sex offenders are actually the least likely to reoffend.”
“Over 90 percent of those people who serve time return to their communities. That has not changed,” Stieg said. “As communities, we have a responsibility to bring those folks back into the fold and to help them succeed.”
Genny Wolfrum, the Harrison-based Northeast Michigan coordinator for MPRI, said, “People fear the unknown.” Her office serves 14 counties, including Alpena, Cheboygan, Clare, Gladwin, Montmorency, Presque Isle and Roscommon.
“It’s important to remove the fear and the stigma,” Wolfrum said. Just because a neighbor may have a felony “doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re in any kind of danger.”
Whenever sex offenders or violent offenders are placed, the agency informs law enforcement and “we all work together,” she said.
Wolfrum encourages people to talk to each other and interact with parolees.
“You might be surprised how many people you associate with that have a felony. They want to return to communities and give back,” she said.
Arnovits said the number of paroled inmates who return to prison is dropping, even though the number of parolees is increasing.
“We’ve reduced return-to-prison rates by 36 percent in three years,” she said. “Communities were better prepared to receive these folks,” and more programs exist to connect parolees to community resources and employment opportunities.
Crime rates throughout the state have also dropped despite the rise in parole, Arnovits added.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.