June 28, 2011

Audit adds to criticism of Michigan's parolee program

6-28-2011 Michigan:

Corrections Dept. may understate number of ex-cons who commit crimes after release, critics say

Lansing — Michigan's Prisoner Re-entry Initiative has won national acclaim for helping ex-convicts stay out of trouble, but critics say the state is undercounting lapsed parolees to make the program appear more successful than it is.

The criticism comes amid an audit of the 6-year-old Department of Corrections program that found other shortcomings, including overcharging vendors for services and allowing conflicts of interest between contractors and subcontractors.

Jim Chihak, a former parole and probation officer who was part of a panel that evaluated the program this spring, said the program's intent — to keep prisoners from returning to prison — is admirable, but "the way it's being handled is a disaster."

"If you worked in a bank that was wasting money and not monitoring where it was going, why would you keep putting money into it?" said Chihak, a Marquette County commissioner.

A recent Pew Center national survey of prisons found Michigan boasts one of the nation's sharpest drops in convicts returning to prison.

The state Department of Corrections' re-entry program was credited with the decline in recidivism while the state was closing prisons and paroling 3,000 more inmates in 2009 than in 2006. Recidivism is often factored in as a way to gauge corrections costs.

But current and former parole officers and others say offenders aren't just being returned to prison. Instead, they are being placed in alternative programs, county jails or on tethers — or worse, being freed and returning to crime — without being counted as "official" re-offenders, critics say.

More than 22,500 ex-cons were paroled by 2010 with help from the program, including aid for housing, transportation, employment, health needs and education, according to the Department of Corrections.

It also reports there have been 33 percent fewer returns to prison for parole violations or new crimes between 2006 to 2009 . The department boasts that returns to prison within three years dropped to a low of 36.4 percent, compared with earlier highs of around 45.7 percent.

But those who challenged the numbers note that in most states, ex-convicts who commit new crimes while on parole go to prison or jail.

Michigan has created a "straddle cell" category in which repeat offenders might get GPS tethers and treatment or counseling to help them get their lives on track rather than be put back behind bars. About 43 percent of offenders in Michigan fall into that classification.
Official: Claims 'malarkey'

Critics believe the state's statistics reflect an artificially lower number of repeat offenders.

Barb Hankey, an Oakland County community services manager who sat on the re-entry program's review panel in the spring, said there are "some discrepancies in the numbers that the (DOC) has been reporting."

Statewide in fiscal year 2010, there were 3,655 offenders on parole at the time of a new offense, Hankey said. Of those, 2,087 were sent back to prison.

But 1,568 offenders — 43 percent — received a "non-prison disposition," which means they likely were sent to a local jail and not included in state numbers.

"They were not considered repeat offenders, even though they had committed a crime," Hankey said.Corrections Department spokesman Russell Marlan calls the idea that the state is misrepresenting the numbers "malarkey." "People who violate the law go back to prison," he said.

Marlan confirmed parolees who do not go back to prison are not counted as recidivists, but added "judges have discretion in Michigan and may consider alternative sentences (to prison)."

Critics also say a recent state audit showed lax oversight of contracts within the re-entry program, which has received nearly $300 million over the past six years. It is currently budgeted for about $55 million.

The audit found that the state's "processes for developing (Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative) contracts and selecting contractors were not effective."

The report by the Michigan Office of Internal Audit Services reviewed only a sample of major contracts, yet found vendors collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess revenues, potential conflicts of interest and numerous programs without any oversight or accounting.

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Department of Management, Budget and Technology, said 10 of 33 major contracts were audited, but there are "hundreds" of subcontractors statewide that were not reviewed.

Marlan said the re-entry program is evolving. "(The program) isn't a magic potion, but it's a far cry from when parolees were released with clothes on their back and $20," he said.

In the past five years, in an effort to free prison beds, the rules have been changed so behavior, including technical violations, that once resulted in an automatic return to prison now may lead to counseling, residential treatment or maybe the county jail.
Some success stories

"To get sent back to prison now, you generally have to commit some kind of violent, assaultive crime or get caught with a gun," Rogers said. "So now you have an artificial recidivism rate."

State officials stress there are dozens of re-entry program successes, such as Stephen Mathison, 38, paroled from prison about three years ago after serving 171/2 years for second-degree murder.

"I was having a hard time adjusting — people thought I wouldn't have any trouble finding a job, but no one would hire me," said Mathison, who learned carpentry in prison.

"The program suggested a therapist that helped me understand what I was going through was not unusual."

A parole officer saw Mathison's potential and suggested he talk with Judy Zehnder Keller, owner of the Bavarian Lodge in Frankenmuth.

Mathison started out as a handyman, using skills learned in prison. Today he is a front desk supervisor at the lodge.

"If it wasn't for the program and some people having faith in me, I don't know what would have happened," Mathison said.

After serving jail time, parolees can qualify for services through community corrections or other outlets. Under a county jail reimbursement program, counties now receive a $60 per-diem fee for every inmate who would otherwise have to be housed in a state prison for infractions. This year, $8.2 million is budgeted statewide for county jails to retain felons locally .

"I personally think the (re-entry) concept is a good thing," said Quintin Rogers, a Pontiac parole officer who has supervised parolees for 15 years. "But it needs to be done before release — not for 90 days after they get out."

One detractor, Berrien County Prosecutor Arthur Cotter, an early advocate of the program, says he feels betrayed by the program's efforts today.

"I was very supportive of the program when it was first started," said Cotter. "But now I see they were cherry-picking the inmates that would do good, who would thrive on a program such as this — people convicted of non-assaultive, nonviolent crimes."

Cotter says he "parted ways" with the program when it was extended to violent offenders "under the cover that the public would be safe."

He added, "It's a public safety issue and is not going to work for everybody." ..Source.. by Mike Martindale/ The Detroit News

No comments: