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    Parole from past to present

    Parole board meeting at Jackson State Prison 1958.

    Parole is defined as a period of supervision and testing in the community prior to release from parole board jurisdiction. Under state law, the Parole Board may grant parole only if there is a reasonable assurance the prisoner will not be a menace to society or to the public safety . 

    The parolee is supervised by a state parole agent and the Parole  Board may revoke the parole whenever the parolee fails to keep the terms of parole which include both standard conditions as well as any special conditions attached to the parole. 

    A parole board meeting in the parole board room at Jackson State Prison 1958. From left: inmate, Fred Sanborn, Roy Nelson, unidentified parole board secretary. The secretary followed the board from site to site taking notes of each interview.

    Since 1885 there have been a variety of advisory agencies to the Governor in the matters of pardons, commutations and paroles. In 1885, the Advisory Board offered recommendations to the Governor upon applications for pardons or commuted sentences and conditional licenses to go at large (later called parole). 

    The State Board of Prison Inspectors took over the duties of the Advisory Board in 1891. In 1893 the state returned to the use of the Advisory Board until 1921. A Commissioner of Pardons and Paroles then replaced the Advisory Board in 1921. 

    In 1922 Governor Alexander Groesbeck created several new state departments. One of which, Public Safety, supervised parolees on the street. During the early 1920s the prison population increased significantly from new commitments, tightened paroles and an increase in the number of parolees returned on violations. 

    At this time the Governor's office controlled all paroles and pardons in the state and Groesbeck personally regulated the number of people being released from prison. During his six years as governor, Groesbeck drastically reduced the number of paroles. They dropped from an average of 48 percent to 40 percent of eligible prisoners paroled with a low in 1922 of 30 percent. Restrictions on parolees were then so strict that a person could be sent back for almost anything and Groesbeck instructed the Department of Public Safety to return as many violators as possible. ................................... 

    "Any prisoner in any Michigan prison is entitled to a parole as soon as the Governor becomes convinced that the prisoner has served time enough to satisfy the sentence and is fit to mingle again with his fellow citizens." 


    1921-22 Report of the
    Commissioner of Pardons and Paroles

    A scandal uncovered 

    During the 1920s, the granting of parole came under increased scrutiny, since access to freedom was the biggest gift one could bestow upon a prisoner. Parole had become somewhat of a commodity and allegations arose that paroles were being bought and sold. In 1926 a grand jury was convened to investigate the sale of parole which revealed it to be the biggest business behind the walls.

    Between 1932 and 1936 the state's prison population steadily declined to a ten-year low. Parolees in each year had run well ahead of new commitments. Reforms in 1937 reversed this pattern. The 1937 Public Act 255, known as the Corrections Law, again revised the parole system. The total number of paroles and the percentage of paroles granted to petitioners fell sharply.

    The next change came about when the head of the Parole Board insisted that parole be determined according to criteria of the board's making without interference from prison officials. Paroles, always closely controlled by the Governor even after the creation of a Commissioner of Pardons and Paroles, came under the control of the Assistant Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. He also headed the newly created three-member Parole Board. 

    The Parole Board was also placed under civil service. The three members served an indefinite term with complete authority to grant or deny parole within limits of sentence. This meant that the promise of release was taken from the Governor's and Warden's hands.

    Next came a nonpolitical Parole Board whose members could be removed for cause after a hearing before a bi-partisan Corrections Commission.

    True parole is a reformative process itself,
    rather than a follow-up or check upon the
    results of prison influences.

    The Corrections Act also provided for an employment Director to place all inmates recommended for parole. Additionally, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles trained a legal investigator to examine the legalities of cases and to advise the parole board after his investigation. 

    Access to freedom was the biggest prize that a prisoner could earn and increased access to parole was one of the eleven demands produced during the 1952 riot at Jackson prison. It stated that "a letter on prison stationery should ask the parole board to revise its procedure to give equal treatment to all inmates. 
    Notable themes of the 1950s included the full implementation of individual treatment programs linked to parole. . 

    1939 Parole Brochure 

    From a 1939 parole brochure

    The importance of parole as part of an effort to reduce the population increased and a new Parole Camp was built near Jackson prison where inmates spent thirty or more days prior to being released.

    In April of 1954 a Parole Board Counseling Meeting stressed a new Counselor-Parole Board relationship. Counselors were to be seen as pre-parole preparation staff.

    By the 1960s treatment programs came even more into vogue. Effective treatment programs justified early release and helped relieve Michigan's crowded prison system. Well publicized treatment programs such as the pre-parole camp, helped to justify to the public early release of convicts. The idea of treatment also substantiated the expanded use of programs.
    The changing political and social climate of the 60s and 70s began to discredit the treatment model. The system of positive reinforcement operating today was the outgrowth of that model. 


    1938 State Prison of Southern Michigan 

    1938 State Prison of
    Southern Michigan

    A new era 

    In 1992, Governor John Engler ordered a reorganization of the Michigan Parole Board which was enacted into law. It consisted of ten full-time, non-civil service employees appointed by the Director of the MDOC. 

    In 2009, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed executive order 2009-20, which abolished the Michigan Parole Board and established a 15  member Michigan Parole and Commutation Board, consisting of  non-Civil Service employees who are to be appointed by the Governor of the State of Michigan.  

    In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder signed executive order 2011-03, which abolished the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board and established a 10 member Michigan Parole Board, consisting on non-Civil Service employees who are appointed by the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Their backgrounds are varied and include law enforcement, law, corrections and social work. 

    The Parole Board's mission is to keep public safety as its number one priority. While the policies and control of parole and the Parole  Board have undergone dramatic changes along with the entire corrections system, the mechanics of the parole process have remained constant for decades. 

    The Parole Board gains jurisdiction of a case when a prisoner serving a non-life sentence has served their minimum sentence, less any good time or disciplinary credits the prisoner may have earned. (In most cases the minimum sentence is set by the judge, the maximum by statute.) 

    The Parole Board is divided into three-member panels. The decision whether to grant or deny parole is made by majority vote of a Parole Board panel. (All cases involving a life sentence must be decided by a majority vote of the full parole board.) If the panel denies parole, a date is selected for the next parole board review. 

    Parole Board members conduct prisoner interviews throughout facilities in Michigan. Each facility visit is for three to four days and a typical interview lasts 15 to 20 minutes. 

    State Prison of Southern Michigan - 1930 

    State Prison of Southern Michigan-west end cell block, circa 1930. Note overcrowding
    conditions. ........................................ 

    During the interview, the Parole Board questions the prisoner about the nature of the offense, whether the prisoner accepts appropriate responsibility for their prior criminal record, their behavior and adjustment while in prison, their participation in programming and their mental health and substance abuse history. 

    The factors considered by the Parole Board in making parole decisions include :.. 

    • the crime for which the prisoner is serving , 
    • prior criminal record, 
    • institutional behavior and adjustment, 
    • programming, 
    • the parole guidelines score 
    • any information obtained from the prisoner interview and 
    • information from victims and other relevant sources. 

    The parole guidelines score, mandatory for all prisoners eligible to be considered for parole, is a numerical scoring system designed to assist in applying objective criteria to any decision made by the parole board. Information used to calculate the parole guidelines score are the prisoner's current offense, the prior criminal record, institutional conduct and program performance, age, mental status and statistical risk. Michigan law and departmental policy allows parole to be granted without interview if the prisoner's parole guidelines score falls in the high guidelines category (+4 and above), provided the prisoner is not serving for a sex offense or a crime involving a death.

    Commutations, pardons and paroles, while all very different elements of the judicial and corrections process, are often confused. 
    With a commutation, the Governor converts the sentence (usually a life sentence) to a term of years which may result in the parole board getting jurisdiction. It does not guarantee release. It simply makes the prisoner eligible for parole. 


    A pardon is generally viewed as removing an offense from the offender's record. The Governor has the sole authority to grant a pardon. Pardons are seldom granted and normally not until the sentence has been served and a significant amount of time has passed. 

    Conversely a prisoner may be continued in prison without interview if the parole guidelines score falls in the low guidelines category (-13 and below). A full 30% of all cases fall into one of these two categories. 

    Parole for life sentences is more involved. Public hearings are required and input from victims, prosecutors and judges is considered. Changes to the law have made prisoners serving life under the drug lifer law eligible for parole as well. Paroles for life sentences require a vote of the entire parole board. Non-parolable life sentences require commutation by the governor. 

    Over the past 30 years an average of 8.2 prisoners per year, serving a life sentence, have been released through the lifer law or commutation process. 

    Recently a new law has revised parole eligibility for certain drug offenses. This means that some prisoners may be eligible for parole earlier than previously indicated. Corrections officials are currently identifying which inmates will be eligible for parole under the amended law. 

    Michigan Department of Corrections, Feb. 6, 2003, updated 04/15/11 

    Related Content
     •  Introduction
     •  Parole Board Members
     •  Jurisdiction
     •  The Parole Consideration Process
     •  Pardon After Probation, Parole or Discharge Application
     •  Executive Clemency Process Summary
     •  Parole Approval Rates PDF icon
     •  Commutation and Pardon Applications and Instructions (CURRENT MICHIGAN PRISONERS ONLY)
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