Skip navigation

Capps Analysis of Mi Parole Board, 2004

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
No way out
Michigan’s parole board
redefines the meaning of “life”

C

APPS

ITIZENS ALLIANCE ON PRISONS & PUBLIC SPENDING

No way out
Michigan’s parole board
redefines the meaning of “life”

September, 2004

CAPPS

ITIZENS ALLIANCE ON
PRISONS & pUBLIC sPENDING

Additional copies of this report may be purchased for $7, including shipping. The full report is
also available on the CAPPS website: www.capps-mi.org.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending
115 W. Allegan St., Suite 850
Lansing, MI 48933
Tel: 517-482-7753
Fax: 517-482-7754
E-Mail: capps@capps-mi.org

Contents

Preface 1
Introduction 3
Multiple views on the meaning of life 5
• Michigan’s Lifer Law - then and now 7
• The view from the bench 14
• The view from other states 17
• The view from inside 19
• Should lifers be paroled? A review of the relevant facts 22

Prisoner profiles 27
• About these profiles 29
• Henry Phillips 31
• Reynaldo Rodriguez 32
• Gladys Wilson 34
• Leslie G. Moran 35
• James R. Percy 37
• Martin Vargas 38
• Gregory Lawrence & Robert Schraw 41
• Ross Stephen Hayes 44
• Michelle Bazzetta-Southers 45
• Gerald Lee Hessell 47
• Jose Daniel Mares 49
• Anthony Johnson 50
• Derek Lee Foster 52
• David Closser 53

• Philandius Ford 55
• Monica Jahner 57
• Robert Weisenauer 58
• Kenneth Foster 60
• Ruth Bullock 62
• The view from then to now 64

Recommendations for change 67
Acknowledgments 72

Preface
There are two kinds of life sentences in Michigan. Life without the possibility of parole is mandatory for
the crime of first-degree murder. Parolable life is one alternative judges can choose for many other offenses.
The law assumes that the difference between the two types of life sentences is significant. First-degree lifers
can never leave prison unless the governor commutes their sentence. Parolable lifers can be released by the
parole board after serving the number of years set by statute. Parolable lifers sentenced in the 1960s, 1970s
and 1980s became eligible for parole after serving 10 years. In those days, judges often chose a life term in
the belief that it was more lenient than a sentence with a long minimum and maximum. Yet today,
hundreds of lifers who could have been released one, two or even three decades ago are growing old in
Michigan’s prisons, at a heavy cost to them and to Michigan taxpayers.
Why have the expectations of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and prior parole board members not
proven true? Over time, as the prison system expanded and attitudes toward prisoners toughened in
general, lifer paroles became less frequent. In recent years the Michigan parole board openly adopted the
philosophy that “life means life,” effectively eliminating the distinction between parolable and non-parolable life terms. This new philosophy is applied to all parolable lifers, regardless of when they were sentenced. In the vast majority of cases, the board reviews the file once every five years and then issues a “no
interest” notice, often without even seeing the person.
These lifers committed serious crimes. For about half it was second-degree murder; for the rest it was such
offenses as armed robbery, criminal sexual conduct, assault with intent to murder and kidnapping. This
report makes no attempt to whitewash their behavior or minimize the harm done to their victims. Nor
does it debate whether life terms were appropriate when imposed. However, over the decades, thousands
of prisoners convicted of similar offenses have served 10, 15 or 20 years and been paroled. The lifers are
not being denied release because their crimes were worse or their prison records are bad or they pose a high
risk of re-offending. They are being denied because the parole board chooses to apply the Lifer Law very
differently than anyone could have foreseen. This report examines whether current policies are fair, rational and cost-effective.

BLANK

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Introduction
In July 1976, Washtenaw County Circuit Judge
William Ager was sentencing Edward Hill for armed
robbery. The judge gave Hill two choices. A 4060 year sentence, with all the good time credits
available then, would have meant parole eligibility
in 16 years. A parolable life term, the judge said,
would likely bring release in 12 years, eight months.
Naturally, Hill chose life.

mum and maximum, such as 40-60 years, because
he believed it would give him a better chance at
parole. But Judge Joseph Gillis declined. Noting
that Jackson would become eligible for parole in
two more years on the life term, the judge said:

In October 1977, Macomb County Circuit Judge
Alton Noe sentenced Henry Fante to parolable life
terms for criminal sexual conduct and armed robbery, stating:

Today, each of these men has spent more than 26
years in prison. They are among nearly 850 Michigan lifers who became eligible for parole after serving 10 years but are now trapped by the current
parole board’s policy that “life means life.”

Now I am informed that the life sentences . . .
depending upon your behavior in prison, that
it probably will be cut down to maybe ten or
twelve years.
In July 1978, Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge Joseph Maher sentenced Ralph Purifoy on two counts
of second-degree murder, imposing 30-50 years for
one count and parolable life for the other. The
judge explained:
These will be served concurrently. His life sentence should be available for discharge from the
State Prison for Southern Michigan at the end
of 12 years and on the other one, depending on
his conduct, his time for release should run approximately the same, possibly a year or two
more.
In June 1985, Roy Jackson appeared in Recorder’s
Court for a resentencing required by a legal error.
Originally sentenced in 1977 to a parolable life term
for second-degree murder, Jackson had served eight
years in prison with an exemplary record. Jackson
urged the Court to impose a sentence with a mini-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Well, you are getting along very well in prison,
and apparently you should have no trouble
with parole.

These lifers include people like Ricky Coyle, for
whom a life sentence would not be an option under today’s sentencing guidelines. Coyle received
life in 1979 for an Oakland County pizza parlor
robbery in which no one was injured. Current
sentencing guidelines would recommend a minimum term no longer than 12 years.
These lifers also include people like Kenneth
White, who pled guilty in Recorder’s Court in
August 1985 to shooting another teenager when
White was 17. The basis for the plea was the understanding of all parties that, even with two years
added for a felony firearm charge, White would
be released in 15 years.
And these lifers include people like Lloyd Tisi, now
age 60, who has served 37 years for the seconddegree murder of a female acquaintance. Tisi built
an exceptional record in prison based on years of
psychotherapy and a string of accomplishments.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree, learned drafting,
was certified in Braille transcription and worked
in the optical lab for 24 years, programming the

3

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

lab’s computer. He was often responsible for instructing other prisoners. Since suffering a stroke in 1998,
Tisi has had brain surgery on four occasions and, as a
result of partial paralysis and vision loss, is too disabled to work any longer.

serious crimes should be given a second chance?
To answer these questions, we must first understand
the place of the Lifer Law in Michigan’s sentencing
scheme and how it used to work.

These lifers, and those whose stories will be told in
more detail, raise many questions.
• Where the Legislature has drawn a clear distinction between life without parole for first-degree
murder and life with parole possible after 10 years,
why does the parole board insist that “life means
life?”
• How has the application of the Lifer Law changed
since these lifers were sentenced?
• Is it fair for an administrative agency to apply
new policies retroactively?
• Should the actual intentions of sentencing judges
be considered by the board?
• What is the value of a plea bargain if the terms
can be rewritten many years later?
• Should people with similar backgrounds who
have committed similar offenses serve vastly different sentences?
• Once they have served the minimum years required by statute, should lifers be assessed for parole on the same basis as other prisoners by considering their institutional conduct, achievements
and risk for re-offending?
• Just who are the lifers now eligible for parole?
Are we safer because they’re behind bars?
• Is it cost-effective to keep people who are aging
or ill locked up for additional decades?
• Does there come a time when enough punishment is enough and even people who committed

4

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Multiple views
on the meaning of life

BLANK

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Michigan’s Lifer Law - then and now
1942-1974: The Lifer Law
serves its purpose
Under Michigan law, a defendant must be sentenced
to life in prison for the crime of first-degree murder. A defendant may be sentenced to life for various other offenses, including second-degree murder, armed robbery, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and certain drug law violations.
For these offenses, the judge can choose to impose
either a life term or an indeterminate sentence (that
is, one with a minimum and maximum number of
years).
Until 1941, Michigan was one of the few states
with a sizeable lifer population that had no parole
process for these prisoners. Regardless of the offense, a lifer could only be released if the Governor
commuted the sentence or granted a pardon. Thus
the release process for lifers was very politically sensitive.
By enacting the Lifer Law (MCL 791.236(6)), the
Legislature created two classes of lifers. Those sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder still could be released only if the Governor exercised clemency. Those sentenced to life for other
offenses became eligible for parole after serving 10
calendar years. In fact, the statute granted parole
eligibility to any prisoner who had served 10 calendar years, even on a long indeterminate sentence.
Thus, the lifer law recognized that 10 years is a
long time to spend in prison and at that point it is
reasonable to reassess people and release those who
have demonstrated sufficient progress.

tions. One was that the parole board was composed of corrections professionals whose independence was protected by statute. They were selected
for their expertise by a bi-partisan commission and
could only be fired for good cause. Thus board
members could assess each case on its merits without their jobs being threatened by unpopular decisions.1
Second, once a prisoner was within the board’s jurisdiction, a lifer’s suitability for parole would presumably be judged according to the same criteria
as any other prisoner. The statute sets no different
standard for releasing lifers once they are eligible.
Third, prisoners other than lifers (those with indeterminate sentences) could receive generous quantities of “good time” credit against their sentences.
The amount of time off that could be earned for
good behavior increased as the prisoner served more
years. Thus very long sentences were not necessarily as harsh as they seemed. A 75-year minimum
could be served in less than 25 years. A parolable
life term and a 20-year minimum were almost
equivalent in terms of first parole eligibility, with
release on the latter possible after 10 years and seven
months.
The 1941 statute did establish a different process
for considering parole under the lifer law. In recognition of the fact that paroles were being substituted for the commutation process, the statute required extra procedures to ensure public input and
protect public safety.
1. The sentencing judge or that judge’s successor
in office must be given 30 days to file written

The lifer law also embodied three critical assump-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

7

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

objections. If the judge objects, the board cannot grant parole. There is no process for appealing a judicial objection. [As originally
drafted, only the sentencing judge, if alive,
could enter an objection. In 1953, the statute
was amended so that the objection could be
filed by a retired or deceased judge’s successor.]
2. Before making a final decision, the parole board
must conduct a public hearing at which people
can speak for or against the prisoner’s release.
3. The parole period must be at least four years.
A 1942 report by the Michigan Department of
Corrections was candid about the Lifer Law’s purpose and optimistic about its prospects for de-politicizing the release process for lifers:
With the passing of the Lifer Law, the entire outlook for over three hundred life termers changed
significantly. It is no longer necessary to go through
the Governor’s office to parole men serving life
terms for any crime except first-degree murder.
This broadening of the powers of the Parole Board
will make it possible to consider for release more
meritorious cases than had been previously possible. Practically speaking, the Parole Board has
been limited in its consideration of outstanding
life cases by the necessity for issuing commutations through the Governor’s office. Even with a
tremendous lifer population, Governors have been
placed in an unfavorable position when they were
asked to sign commutations. Much political capital has been made of the frequent use of the commuting power in the past; with the result commutations were regarded as fraught with political meanings, rather than open, straightforward
granting of parole to a man who had earned consideration. By conforming to the statutory safeguards set up, the Parole Board may now consider the matter of release of a lifer (except Murder First Degree) directly with the sentencing

8

judge and grant parole and the Governor’s power
of executive clemency may now be used exclusively
with murder first degree cases. 2

For several decades, the Lifer Law apparently worked
as planned. In the 1940s, 110 lifers were paroled.
In the 1950s, it was 112, and in the ‘60s it was 124.
Thus, for 28 years, lifer paroles averaged 12 per year.
Data is not available about the number of lifers who
had served ten years and were actually eligible for
parole during these decades. However, it appears
that the proportion of eligible lifers who were released was high. By 1973, when MDOC statistical
reports added more information, there were 272
prisoners serving parolable life terms. Since 254 of
them had been sentenced during the preceding 10
years, it appears the pool of eligible lifers was growing little, if at all.
Also as anticipated, the Lifer Law left the Governor more leeway to commute the sentences of prisoners serving life without parole. From 1942-49,
35 first-degree murder sentences were commuted;
in the 1950s there were 114 commutations, and
in the 1960s there were 221. In 1973, there were
336 prisoners serving non-parolable life terms.
The trend continued through the early 1970s. 1973
and 1974 were watershed years for lifers. Thirtyfive were paroled. Of these, 21 had served fewer
than 15 years; 26 had served fewer than 20 years.
In addition, 30 first-degree lifers had their sentences
commuted. These releases reflect the understanding of the Lifer Law that sentencing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys shared throughout the
1970s and into the 1980s.
1975-1992: Lifer paroles decline
In the mid-1970s, reality began to diverge from the
common understanding. From 1975-1992, only
65 lifers were paroled, an average of fewer than four
per year. Commutations were granted to 36 people

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

convicted of first-degree murder. In part, this may
well have reflected harsher public attitudes about
crime and punishment. In 1978, voters had
adopted a constitutional amendment to eliminate
good time credits on minimum sentences imposed
from then on. In the same year, the Legislature
enacted draconian drug crime penalties that included life without parole for delivering more than
650 grams of certain controlled substances.
Yet the evidence does not suggest a significant
change in parole board philosophy. On the contrary, in the early 1980s, the board began experimenting with a version of parole guidelines for prisoners being interviewed under the Lifer Law. Called
“Commutation and Long Term Release Guidelines,” they awarded points based on the prisoner’s
prior record and details of the offense, such as the
degree of injury, use of a weapon and the offender’s
role. The points were summarized on a grid that
suggested when parole or commutation would be
appropriate. Although not binding on the board,
the grid term was supposed to help make decisions
more objective and consistent. For a first offender
serving life for robbery or sexual assault, the longest grid term possible was 14 years. For a first offender convicted of second-degree murder without
unusual aggravating circumstances, the grid term
was also 14 years. For non-homicide cases, it took
a substantial prior record and a very high offense
severity score for the “grid term” to exceed 20 years.
Also during this period, the frequency with which
lifers were interviewed by the parole board was increased. Prior to 1977, the board interviewed prisoners subject to the Lifer Law after they had served
seven years and every three years thereafter. In 1977,
this was changed to a first interview at seven years,
a second three years later (when the board obtained
jurisdiction) and every year thereafter. The purpose of these frequent interviews was described in
the Michigan Department of Corrections’ 1974

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Annual Report on page 101:
While release cannot be prior to ten years, the
Parole Board, as a practice, grants an initial
interview in all lifer law cases after the service
of seven years. This is done primarily to get
acquainted with the individual prior to the service of ten years and to offer any advice or help
relative to achieving future parole.
In 1982, the statute was amended to require an interview when the lifer had served four years and
then every two years thereafter.
The decline in lifer paroles was attributable at least
in part to the growth of the prison system overall.
Statutory requirements notwithstanding, lifer interviews were put on the back burner while the
board struggled to see prisoners who were immediately eligible for parole on their minimum sentences.
Overcrowded prisons necessitated prompt board
reviews of less serious offenders likely to be released
quickly. Even lifers who were told that the board
had interest in their cases waited years before hearing anything else. As one MDOC official said in a
1987 memo: “ . . . everyone knows the Board is so
far behind on lifer interviews they will never catch
up.”3
The dearth of lifer releases destroyed the equilibrium that had existed. The proportion of prisoners
committed during this period who had life terms
remained small (1.2 percent had parolable life and
another 1.2 percent had non-parolable life). However the number of prisoners serving life increased
steadily. In 1983, there were 770 people serving
parolable life terms and 852 people serving nonparolable life. By 1992, there were 1,439 parolable
lifers and 1,742 people serving non-parolable life
for first-degree murder.

9

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

1993-2004: New policies
applied to old lifers
In early 1992, a paroled sex offender raped and murdered four young girls in Oakland County. Although he had been released well after serving his
seven-year minimum term, the events were a catalyst for numerous changes in the parole process that
affected all prisoners.
Most significantly, the parole board itself was
changed. Expanded from seven to ten members,
the board was stripped of its civil service protection
in order to make it “more accountable.” All members are now appointed by the MDOC Director,
who is, in turn, appointed by the Governor. By statute, at least four members must not have corrections experience. Under the Engler administration,
few board members had any. The majority had
backgrounds in law enforcement and prosecution.
Parole rates for every type of offender plummeted.
There is no question that the new board was intended, as then Director Kenneth McGinnis said,
to be “far more conservative than its predecessor.”
In his preface to a 1997 status report on the new
board, McGinnis asserted:
To reinforce public confidence in Michigan’s penal system, Gov. John Engler in 1992 ordered
an overhaul of the Parole Board and the way in
which paroles were granted. The intent of the
overhaul was to make Michigan’s communities
safer by making more criminals serve more time
and keeping many more locked up for as long as
possible.4
For lifers, of course, “as long as possible” meant never
being released. The new board inherited dozens of
lifer cases in which the prior board had shown interest but failed to act. After reconsidering these
cases, the board paroled 14 lifers in 1994 and 12
more from 1995-1998. But a new approach was

10

taking hold that became clear in legislative testimony
the board chair gave in 1999:
It has been a long standing philosophy of the
Michigan Parole Board that a life sentence
means just that – life in prison. Of course there
are exceptions and parole may be appropriate
under certain circumstances…It is the parole
board’s belief that something exceptional must
occur which would cause the parole board to
request the sentencing judge or Governor to set
aside a life sentence. Good behavior is expected
and is not in and of itself grounds for parole.5
The new approach was reinforced in materials the
board provided to a judicial conference in 2001.
After asserting that the distinction between a parolable and a non-parolable life sentence is “who
makes the final release decision,” the board sought
to clarify “misconceptions” by stating:
There are some who believe a life sentence
equates to a number of years of confinement;
i.e. a life sentence equals 10, 20, 30 years, etc.
The parole board believes a life sentence means
life in prison. There is nothing which exists in
statute that allows the parole board to think, or
do, otherwise. 6
In this way, the Lifer Law, so carefully constructed
to increase lifer paroles by decreasing the political
sensitivity of the release process, has been redefined
by a politically-appointed board to virtually eliminate lifer paroles altogether.
This redefinition of the Lifer Law was accompanied by changes in the decision-making process.
In 1992, when the board was reconstituted, two
key amendments were also made to the Lifer Law
itself. First, everyone sentenced to a parolable life
term on or after Oct. 1, 1992 must serve 15 calendar years instead of 10 before becoming eligible for
release. Two points about this change are notewor-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

thy. Although the time required for parole eligibility was lengthened, it still reflected a legislative intent to maintain the essential distinction between
parolable and non-parolable life. In addition, as is
constitutionally required for all increases in punishment for crime, the change applied only to
people sentenced after the amendment took effect.
The other amendment to the Lifer Law changed
the interview schedule. Lifers would now be interviewed for the first time after serving ten years
and only once every five years thereafter. Although
seeing lifers less often would naturally tend to reduce their chances for release, the federal court said
this procedural change could be applied to all lifers,
regardless of their offense date.
Also in 1992, the Legislature required the MDOC
to develop parole guidelines to help structure
board decision-making. Designed to assess the
prisoner’s risk of re-offending if released, the
guidelines weigh numerous factors, including offense, prior record, age, institutional conduct, and
length of time served. If a prisoner scores above a
certain cut-off point, the parole board must provide substantial and compelling written reasons
for denying release. Although the statute makes
no mention of excluding any group of prisoners,
the parole board has chosen not to apply the
guidelines to lifers and the courts have upheld this
position.
In 1999, the Legislature made four more important changes in the parole process.
1. The right of all prisoners to appeal parole board
decisions was eliminated (although the right
of prosecutors and victims to appeal grants of
parole was retained).
2. The interview schedule for lifers was changed
again. A personal interview, by a single board
member, is required only when the prisoner

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

has served 10 calendar years. Thereafter, the
prisoner’s file must be reviewed, by one board
member, every five years. The board retains
complete discretion to decide if it ever sees the
prisoner in person again.
3. The requirement that the board provide a written explanation of the reasons for denying release, applicable to all other prisoners, was eliminated for lifers.
4. The decision to grant or deny parole to a lifer
was redefined as coming only after a public hearing has been held. Thus a board determination that it has “no interest” in even holding a
public hearing is not considered a decision to
deny parole, even though a public hearing is
required before parole can be granted. Under
this convoluted reasoning, if the right to appeal parole denials were restored to prisoners
in general, lifers would still not be able to appeal decisions not to proceed to public hearing.
All the lifers who have now served more than 10
years have already been personally interviewed once.
Therefore, by statute, the board does not ever have
to see them again. Nor must it use parole guidelines to assess whether releasing them would pose a
significant risk to the public. The board is required
only to skim through their files, once every five
years, before it can issue a notice that simply says
“no interest.” The board does not have to give any
reason for its decision, which is technically not even
a decision to deny release. The prisoner cannot
appeal to any court or other administrative authority. The parole board’s discretion to keep a parolable lifer is boundless, inscrutable and not subject
to review.
One other change in the Lifer Law occurred in
1998. When the Michigan Legislature abolished

11

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

the penalty of life without parole for “650 drug
lifers,” it also gave relief to prisoners already sentenced under that harsh law. It made them eligible
for parole after 15, 17½ or 20 years, depending
on whether they cooperated with authorities and
whether they had a prior conviction for another
serious crime.
The board immediately took this statutory change
as a mandate to start releasing drug lifers. From
1999-2003, of 21 lifers who were paroled, 14 were
drug offenders. During the same period, of 16 lifers
who received commutations, 11 were drug lifers.
While the board was no doubt correct in perceiving a legislative intent to act on the drug lifers, it
apparently saw no contradiction in failing to act
on hundreds of lifers who had been eligible for parole under existing law for many years.
Among the seven paroled lifers who were not drug
offenders, the board characterizes five as medical
cases, although all had served more than enough
time to be eligible for release under the Lifer Law
regardless of their health status. Three of the nondrug lifers who received commutations were also
medical cases. Thus, in the five-year period from
1999-2003, only two lifers received paroles and two
received commutations who were not either serving for drug offenses or seriously ill.7
The arbitrariness of the lifer parole process is illustrated by the case of Nick Lazin, paroled in July
2004 after serving 41 years for second-degree murder. His institutional record and psychological
evaluations were good and his last misconduct citation was in 1987. Letters from his sentencing
judge written in 1977 and 1981 indicated that the
judge felt a life sentence was much less severe than
a 30-year minimum and that he would have no
objection to parole when the board wished to proceed.

12

Recognizing Lazin’s apparent suitability for parole,
the old board decided to hold a public hearing in
1988 and again in 1992, but each time the sentencing judge’s successor in office objected to Lazin’s
release. Neither Lazin nor the board had any recourse. Then, in November 2001, at Lazin’s request, the successor judge issued an order expressly
withdrawing his objection and granting jurisdiction to the board. The judge and Lazin both sent
the order directly to the parole board chair, but
nothing happened.
Lazin was routinely considered again in November 2002. The board merely reviewed his file, notified him that it had no interest and scheduled
the next review for 2007. Again, Lazin had no
recourse. Then, for unknown reasons, the board
chose to interview him in July 2003. In March
2004, it decided to proceed toward parole and held
a public hearing a few months later.
Why did the board not act to release Lazin as soon
as the judge lifted his objection in 2001? Why did
it not act when it reviewed his file in 2002? What
made the board suddenly decide to interview him
in 2003? Why did it then take eight more months
to decide to hold a public hearing? If it is reasonable to parole Lazin, who is neither a drug lifer nor
seriously ill, why not hundreds of other lifers whose
situations are similar?
Over the last 60 years, the situation for lifers has
come full circle. The Legislature’s intent to take
politics out of release decisions for parolable lifers
has been negated by the decision to put politics
into the parole board appointment process. Instead of the “open, straightforward granting of parole to a [person] who had earned consideration”
envisioned by the authors of the Lifer Law, lifer
releases are now assumed to be political risks rarely
worth taking.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

The consequences of this “no release, no risk”
approach are inevitable. From 1993-2001, the
proportion of all newly-committed prisoners
who had parolable life sentences declined and
the proportion with non-parolable life remained constant. But the lack of releases has
caused the lifer population to just keep growing. In 2001, there were 1,718 parolable lifers
and 2,704 people serving life without parole.

of the Michigan Parole Board, Testimony in support of Proposed Legislation (Lansing, Sept. 28, 1999).
6. Martin, Steinman and Marschke, “Michigan Department of Corrections, Field Operations Administration,
Office of the Parole Board,” prepared for Michigan Judges
Association Annual Judicial Conference, Traverse City, Michigan, Oct. 1-3, 2001.
7. Commutations were also awarded to twelve nonlifers – seven other drug offenders and five non-drug offenders who were terminally ill.

Endnotes
1. When the Lifer Law was adopted, the parole
board was composed of three members selected for their
“familiarity with the problems of penology.” One member was the MDOC assistant director in charge of the
bureau of pardons and paroles. The other two were
appointed by the corrections commission and could be
removed by the commission only for cause after a hearing.
The corrections commission oversaw department
operations and chose the MDOC director. The commission had five members, appointed by the governor
with the advice and consent of the senate. Commission members served staggered six-year terms and no
more than three could come from one political party.
In 1948, the parole board was increased to four
members, all appointed by the commission, and was
given civil service protection. It was expanded to five
members in 1953 and seven in 1978. In 1991, Gov.
John Engler abolished the corrections commission and
transferred its duties to the department director, who is
now appointed by the governor.
2. Corrections in Wartime, the Department of Corrections’ Third Biennial Report, 1941-1942, pages 9394.
3. Memorandum from Richard McKeon,
MDOC Executiv e Assistant, to Clayton Burch, Legislative Corrections Ombudsman, Aug. 26, 1987.
4. Michigan Department of Corrections, “Five
Years After: An analysis of the Michigan Parole Board
since 1992” (Lansing, September 1997).
5. Michigan Department of Corrections, Office

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

13

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

The view from the bench
Exactly what did Michigan judges expect to happen when they imposed parolable life terms? Beyond the records of individual cases, there is systematic evidence of their intentions. In January
2002, the Prisons and Corrections Section of the
State Bar of Michigan surveyed 379 current and
former felony trial court judges.1 The questionnaire
asked about:
•

the judges’ understanding of what a parolable
life sentence meant as a practical matter,

•

their own intentions when they chose life sentences as opposed to indeterminate terms,

•

how they view the parole board’s current policy,
and

•

what remedies, if any, should be available to
lifers being denied release contrary to the sentencing judge’s intentions.

Ninety-five judges, representing 43 of Michigan’s
81 counties, responded. They were evenly divided
between those currently sitting and those who are
retired.
Two-thirds of the responding judges said that the
availability of parole was a factor they considered
when selecting a life term. A number of them noted
that if they wanted to avoid the possibility of parole, they imposed very long – even triple digit –
minimum sentences that the defendant would not
live to serve. Thus a retired Wayne County judge
said:
There were times when a ‘life’ term was imposed
precisely because I wanted the parole board to
have the option of parole at some point in the
future.

14

Another former Wayne County judge explained:
I understood a prisoner would be eligible for
parole after about 10 years and many were released. I would give a term of years if I wanted
to be sure a prisoner would remain in prison.
And a former Eaton County judge agreed:
…90% of life sentences I wanted MDOC to
use their continuing discretion as to when release was appropriate. If I really wanted to assure a life sentence I would give a ‘basketball
score’ term of years, the exact opposite of the claim
MDOC is currently making. (original emphasis)
Twenty-four respondents noted exactly how much
time they expected parolable lifers to actually serve.
The average was 15.6 years. Even more telling were
the answers to questions that compared the harshness of a life sentence to minimum terms of various
lengths. Before generous good time provisions were
eliminated in 1978, a 25-year term could be served
in 12 years. Nonetheless, 60 percent of all survey
participants thought that a life term imposed before 1978 was less harsh than a 25-year minimum.
Many judges acknowledged that defendants were
often told how many years they could expect to serve
on a life sentence or, at a minimum, that they could
earn their release through good conduct, education
and program participation. Many judges also said
that when a defendant charged with first-degree
murder pled guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a parolable life term, the plea bargain
was presumed to have value because the possibility
of parole was presumed to be real.
The judges were asked specifically whether the cur-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

rent parole board’s position that “life means life”
accurately reflects their intentions when they imposed parolable life terms. Two-thirds of the respondents said “No.” (Another 16 percent did not
answer; only 17 percent said “Yes.”) Some explained
their reasoning. A former Genesee County judge
stated:
Because of the lifer law, I did not think life
necessarily meant life.
A retired Marquette County judge also relied on
the law:
Under the legislative scheme, ‘life means life’
simply is not accurate.
A Bay County judge relied on plain logic:
If it is parolable, it can’t mean ‘life is life’, logically.
A Lapeer County judge with 23 years on the bench
concluded:
I never considered that ‘parolable life’ meant
the same as mandatory life. I believe other judges
of my time (1969-1992) would agree.
Many of the respondents strongly criticized the
parole board for violating legislative intent, usurping judicial authority or failing to exercise its own
discretion appropriately. Thus a Kent County judge
asserted:
The parole board’s policy essentially vitiates the
distinction between 1st and 2nd degree murder
sentences which I am sure was not the
legislature’s intention. It is an extreme and misguided view. (original emphasis)
An Oakland County judge said:
The parole board is acting irresponsibly and if
legislation is needed to prevent the board from,
in effect, overruling the judge, then so be it.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

A Muskegon judge who characterized the board’s
decisions as “too political” continued:
… any decision should be based on
inmate’s conduct and potential risk to community.
A St. Clair County respondent summed the situation up this way:
When I sentence a person today, I believe I am
a pretty good judge of the minimum time society requires to be protected from the defendant
– I believe that the parole board is better
equipped to evaluate the defendant’s progress
several years later – unfortunately the present
parole board does not seem to wish to exercise
this discretion.
Two-thirds of the responding judges thought some
avenue of relief should be available to lifers in appropriate cases. Despite the burden it would place
on the trial courts, 60 percent said “Yes” to the
question: Would you support a statute or court
rule that permitted judges to resentence defendants
who were eligible for parole, had good prison
records, and were denied release contrary to the
actual intentions of the sentencing judge? As one
Wayne County judge put it:
I feel that the parole board should exercise its
power in a fair way and consider rehabilitation as a release factor. If they don’t exercise discretion then the sentencing court should be able
to.
Another six percent who did not support resentencing as an option suggested that the solution is
to change parole board practices.
Despite the desire of trial judges to have some sort
of remedy available, prisoners’ efforts to obtain judicial relief from the parole board’s policy have been
stymied. The appellate courts recently confirmed

15

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

that no statute permits prisoners to appeal parole
board decisions, no matter how much the board
may have abused its discretion.2 And when trial
judges have agreed to resentence lifers to terms of
years, the appellate courts have reversed those decisions.
Numerous lifers have sought resentencing on the
rationale that the parole board’s redefinition of the
Lifer Law long after they were sentenced is unconstitutional. One theory was that the judge’s assumptions about when lifers would be released
amounted to a misunderstanding of the law that
violated due process. However, in People v Moore3
the Michigan Supreme Court found that a judge’s
reliance on the fact that a lifer would be considered for parole after 10 years was not a misunderstanding because lifers are in fact considered, they
just are not paroled. The Court concluded that a
sentencing judge’s “failure to accurately predict the
actions of the Parole Board” does not render the
sentence invalid.
Lifers also argue that the board’s retroactive application of its “life means life” policy has increased
their punishment in violation of constitutional
guarantees against ex post facto (retroactive)
changes in criminal penalties. Lifers who pled
guilty in exchange for the supposed benefit of a
parolable life term argue that the board’s policy
makes their plea bargains illusory and their pleas
involuntary. Although these claims have been
raised repeatedly, the appellate courts have not decided them yet.

complex procedural points. And, of course, even
if they surmount every hurdle, the outcome would
still be uncertain. Unless the Michigan Legislature
institutes a process for reviewing parole board decisions or authorizes trial judges to grant resentencing, the original intentions of the judges who imposed life sentences decades ago will continue to
be frustrated for years to come.

Endnotes
1. The complete report, What Should “Parolable Life”
Mean? Judges Respond to the Controversy, Report of a Survey
Conducted by The Prisons and Corrections Section, State Bar
of Michigan, March 2002, is available on the CAPPS website.
2. Morales v Michigan Parole Board, 206 Mich App 29
(2003), lv. den. 470 Mich 885 (2004).
3. 468 Mich 573; 664 NW2d 700 (2003)

Since their arguments allege violations of the
United States constitution, lifers can try to pursue
them in federal court. However, the process is long
and complicated, and there is no right to appointed
counsel. Even those who have the resources to litigate their federal claims could face years of appeals
or have their issues swallowed up in debates over

16

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

The view from other states
How does Michigan compare to other states in its
imposition of life sentences and its lifer release practices? Such comparisons are difficult to make because many relevant factors differ from state to state.
Jurisdictions vary widely in the offenses for which
life terms can be imposed, the use of parolable versus non-parolable life terms, the length of time
before parolable lifers are eligible for release, the
availability of good time for lifers, the imposition
of very long indeterminate sentences that are virtually life terms and the retroactive application of
changes in law and practice.
While systematic data does not exist for most of
these variables, a recent report by The Sentencing
Project provides information about the sheer number of prisoners currently serving parolable and
non-parolable life terms.1 Nationally, 127,677
people are serving life – 9.4 percent of all state and
federal prisoners. In Michigan, lifers comprise 9.2
percent of the total prisoner population. With
4,572 in 2002-03, Michigan ranks eighth among
the states in its total number of lifers.
The extent to which states impose life without parole varies dramatically. In six states and the federal system, all life sentences are without parole.
Conversely, four states have no prisoners serving
non-parolable life. Even among neighboring states
of similar size, the practices are diametrically opposed. Illinois has 1,291 lifers, none of whom are
eligible for parole, and Ohio has 4,729 lifers, but
only 105 are serving life without parole. With
2,629 prisoners serving for first-degree murder,
Michigan ranks fifth among all states in the number of people serving life without parole.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

The growth in Michigan’s lifer population over the
last two decades is part of a national trend. The
Sentencing Project reports that, nationally, the lifer
population doubled from 1984-1992, and then grew
by another 83 percent from 1992-2003.
The national data do not reveal whether increased
lifer populations are due primarily to more life sentences or fewer releases. In some cases, such as
California’s adoption of a “three strikes” law that requires a life sentence for commission of a third felony
under many circumstances, the imposition of more
life sentences is clearly a contributing factor. Other
states have, like Michigan, increased the length of
time lifers must serve before becoming parole eligible or have eliminated parole for lifers altogether.
Release rates, whether by parole or commutation,
have also declined in some states. In Pennsylvania,
for instance, where all life sentences are without parole, the number of commutations has plummeted.
In California, former Governor Gray Davis refused
to release lifers convicted of murder, rejecting all but
eight of 294 paroles approved by the parole board.
Nonetheless, it appears that Michigan’s lifer parole
policies are harsher than those of many other states.
This is particularly true when one recognizes that
states that have modernized their penal codes often
do not allow life sentences for crimes other than
murder. Any meaningful comparison of how states
treat parolable lifers must begin with an analysis of
when a parolable life term can even be imposed.
An instructive comparison can be made between
Michigan and Georgia, which does allow life sentences for non-homicide offenses.2 Georgia has the
eighth largest state prison system and the fifth larg-

17

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

est total number of lifers. In September 2001, it
had 6,059 prisoners serving parolable life and 252
serving life without parole. In the 1990s, Georgia
toughened up on lifer paroles in a number of ways.
For seven serious violent felonies (murder, rape,
kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated sodomy,
aggravated sexual battery and aggravated child molestation), the time to be served before parole eligibility was increased from seven to 14 years. The
maximum time allowable between parole reviews
of eligible lifers was increased from three years to
eight. The number of lifers who received parole
dropped by more than 50 percent over the decade.
The average length of time served by those who
were released grew from 11.4 years in 1991 to 15
years in 2000.
Yet it is clear that life does not mean life in Georgia. The decline in lifer paroles was from 136 in
1991 to 55 in 2000. The total paroled for the period was 607. That is a far cry from the total of 30
lifers paroled in Michigan in the entire decade of
the ‘90s.
In Florida, too, parole-eligible lifers have an actual
chance of being released. A recent news article described the “Men Going Home” program at the
Everglades Correctional Institute in Florida.3 This
transitional program designed for lifers eligible for
parole “under old sentencing guidelines” teaches the
prisoners, many of whom have served 25 years,
about everything from budgeting to healthy relationships to dinner table etiquette. More than 100
men have gone through the program since it began
in 1997. The chairperson of the Florida Parole
Commission says: “They’ve clearly shown that
they’ve changed. We wouldn’t let them out if we
thought they were at risk.” A victims’ counselor
from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office who
teaches in the program says that while her sympathy is with crime victims and their families: “These

18

men have spent most of their lives in pain. At some
point, they deserve a break.”
It cannot be denied that the tough on crime attitudes that swelled prison populations all over the
country also affected the treatment of lifers. The
Sentencing Project estimates that lifers who enter
prison now will serve more years before being released than those sentenced in the past. Nonetheless, nationally, a meaningful distinction between
parolable life and life without parole continues to
exist. There is no evidence that any state other than
Michigan has eliminated that distinction, retroactively, through a simple parole board pronouncement that “life means life.”

Endnotes
1. Mauer, King and Young, The Meaning of “Life”: Long
Prison Sentences in Context, The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C., May 2004).
2. Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Research
Evaluation and Technology Unit, Criminal Justice Brief: Life
sentences in Georgia’s correctional system – 2001;
www.pap.state.ga.us.
3. Laughlin, Preparing inmates for life outside of prison:
‘Men Going Home’ program designed for newly paroled ‘lifers’,
Lansing State Journal, May 24, 2004, www.lsj.com/lifestyles/
family/p_040525_goinghome_3d.html.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

The view from inside
Many of the men and women serving life in Michigan prisons were quite young when they first came
to prison decades ago. They want the public to
know they have changed.
1 was a boy then; I am a man now.
—Benjamin Roundtree Jr., 156507 ~ 25 years
Parolable lifers are not monsters. We are men
and women who made a bad decision 10, 20,
30 and 40 years ago. They call us violent people.
Violent since when?
—Reynaldo J. Rodriguez, 149675 ~ 27 years

health insurance, education and being productive citizens.
—Anthony Johnson, 125208 ~ 28 years
They express great frustration with their treatment
by the parole board. Lifers feel that no matter
what they do, they can never get beyond their past
and be judged on their current behavior and
achievements.
All we are judged on is our past and that can
never be changed.
—Grant Uribe, 120475 ~ 32 years

Nearly 100 parolable lifers wrote to CAPPS to explain how current parole policies make them feel,
what it is like to serve a life term and what they
want the public to understand.

We have zero credibility. We show a visible
change in our life, they disregard it by saying
it’s a con job or the person is institution-wise
and playing the system.

They report growing up in prison, maturing and
gaining a different perspective on life.

—Jose Mares, 135943 ~ 30½ years

. . . after 25 to 30 years not only have we grown
out of what we used to be, but we’ve learned
how important life is and family.
—Charles L. Ross, 142755 ~ 29 years
The older we become the less likely we think in
violent terms as a means to an end.
—Lawrence Swearington, 145972 ~ 27½ years
Those who have served 25 or more years are no
longer thinking like criminals. They are thinking about jobs and employment, pension plans,

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Serving a life sentence is to know that regardless of the accomplishments you obtain, regardless of your good deeds and behavior, regardless
of your maturity, your health, your social
growth, regardless of your willingness to accept
and show responsibility for the things you do,
or have done, you will not be looked on with
any favorable consideration. It’s like pushing
against an immovable object.
—Jerry Martin, Jr., 136142 ~ 30 years
They point to the unfairness of lumping all lifers
together, then writing them off based on their sentences instead of their merits.

19

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Not all lifers are evil people. That’s why each
case needs to be considered in its own way instead of just lifers.

Retribution, punishment, corrections . . . these
are all important goals, but no less so are understanding, compassion and mercy.

—Melvina Smith. 234444 ~ 11 years

—Jay Bartlett, 151428 ~ 27 years

The term Life is not a characteristic but a sentence. People should not infer that a lifer is more
dangerous than any of the other prisoners who
are routinely released.

There is a point in time when the human beings responsible for violent acts against other
human beings have atoned for their crimes and
satisfied the ends of justice and that point in
time for the majority of parolable lifers in Michigan prisons tolled long ago.

—George Costiel, 142984 ~ 29 years
All the board sees is this four letter word, like
it’s a curse. They don’t see past the word life.
They don’t look at what I’ve done since being in
prison nor any of the facts within my file.
—Larry Guy, 186643 ~ 19 years
Many express a sense of betrayal by a system that
does not seem to follow its own rules or honor its
own values.
I was never told by the court or prosecutor that
in my plea everything I had just agreed to was
all subject to change over the years . . . and I
may never see the board again in this life time
or be able to appeal.
—Arthur Thomas, 131044 ~ 25 years

—Roy Chapel Jackson, 152389 ~ 27 years
Many parolable lifers have grown up while in
prison. Many judges believed these young lifers
would eventually be paroled, but they just never
saw this new parole board coming.
—Martin Vargas, 133525 ~ 32 years
And they explain how the board’s disinterest and
unwillingness even to see them face-to-face leaves
them feeling helpless and hopeless.
I’m not considered a human being. Having spent
30+ years maturing, growing and working to
change, I’m now faced with a board that doesn’t
even wish to see me.
—Robert Otto Bryan, 137462 ~ 32 years

My sentence was not to die in prison.
—Rita Wilson, 196690 ~ 16 years
When I came into the system, the popularly held
philosophy was: ‘Give us some time and learn a
job skill and maybe get some education and we
will give you another shot at life.’ Today the
concept is . . . punishment.
—Jack Lown, 122080 ~ 28 years

20

It is very disheartening to be rubber stamped
‘no interest’ every five years, after five years, after five years . . .
— Jerry Martin Jr., 136142 ~ 30 years
It’s absurd to allow anyone to say: ‘You don’t
count enough for us to even bother to see any
more . . . In a country of second chances, why

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

doesn’t this state’s parole board give parolable
lifers a second chance after two decades or more?
—Jack Rice, 156502 ~ 25 years
I have watched (the parole board) painstakingly
strip the one thing that lifers cling to for many
years — hope,
—Bill Sleeper, 116539 ~ 37½ years
The lifers describe the difficulty of not knowing if
they will ever be released.
The parolable lifer has no idea when his sentence is over . . . He is at the whim of the board,
the political climate, the mood of the public and
the next idiot who gets out and commits a heinous crime.
—Ali Sareini, 203519 ~ 15½ years
Most prisoners have an idea of when they can be
released and what they can do to improve their
chances for parole. Lifers do not have that luxury.
Having a life sentence is like having a disease
that has no cure. You try to keep your hopes up,
and pray that something positive will happen.
—Reginald Johnson. 115613 ~ 28½ years
Every time I see someone released, I die inside a
little because at my age time is running out for
me to be with the one family member I have
left.

We have all seen the old and helpless die here
in prison of old age and other sicknesses. All we
wish to do is spend the rest of our days with
friends and loved ones.
—Jonathan Mott, 129064 ~ 26 years
Ultimately they voice their certainty that they could
still contribute to their families and communities
if only they were given a second chance
We are your sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and
cousins, who have made mistakes in life and
though they are serious mistakes and warrant
punishment we also deserve a second chance in
life, especially those of us who were little more
than children when we committed our crimes.
—John Clay-Bey, 145094 ~ 28½ years
We have the ability to reform and become a
better person, just like any one else. Personally,
I pray every day for a second chance in life . . .
—Charles Armaly 155946 ~ 26 years
We understand more than most the harm we
caused our victims and families. We have spent
years and years relieving that terrible event. We
want a chance to give back. I personally have
about 15 productive years left in me. Why waste
those years?
—Bill Sleeper, 116539 ~ 37½ years

—Philandius Ford, 113879 ~ 31 years

A lot of us have changed for the better, We long
for the chance to live another day on the other
side with you.

It is frightening for 65 or 70-year-old lifers who
see no light at the end of the tunnel.

—Robert Wittmuss, 176724 ~ 20 years

—Kenneth Marshall, 094939 ~ 32 years

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

21

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Should lifers be paroled? A review of the relevant facts
By law, hundreds of lifers could now be released at any time.
But should they be? Is the parole board’s policy protecting the
public from the “worst of the worst” or is it arbitrarily imposing the harshest possible punishment on people who could live
safely in the community at far less cost to taxpayers? The evidence suggests that lifers present no greater risk for re-offending than prisoners who are paroled every day, many for similar
offenses.

• Nearly 58% are AfricanAmerican; 3% are women.

For its 2003 report, The high cost of denying parole: an analysis
of prisoners eligible for release,1 CAPPS examined the MDOC
prisoner database as of May 6, 2003. On that date there were
1,943 prisoners serving parolable life terms. Of these, 834
were then eligible for parole. They had served the number of
years required by the Lifer Law and had no additional sentences that would prevent their release.

• Half were convicted of 2nddegree murder; the rest
committed other serious
offenses.

CAPPS analyzed numerous background factors about these
lifers, ranging from their offenses and prior records to their
institutional conduct. This analysis provides a demographic
snapshot of the parole-eligible lifers. It also addresses most of
the factors the parole board would weigh if it calculated parole
guidelines scores for lifers to systematically assess their risk for
re-offending.
The lifers are similar to the rest of the prison population in
gender and race. Slightly fewer are female (3.0 percent of eligible lifers versus 4.5 percent of total population). Somewhat
more are African-American (57.6 percent of eligible lifers versus 54 percent of total population).
While the data is missing on 87 cases, it is clear that most of
the non-drug lifers were relatively young when they committed their crimes, as tends to be true of assaultive offenders generally. Their median age was 24. Two-thirds were 28 or younger.
Most striking is the fact that nearly 30 percent (218 people)
were 20 years old or younger; 72 were ages 15 to 17.
The lifers’ offenses are mostly serious crimes against people.

22

The parole-eligible lifers:
a snapshot

• Most were relatively young
when they committed their
crimes; nearly 30% were 20
or younger.

• They are much older than the
prison population generally.
Their median age is 49.
• Many lifers are first-time
offenders. Two-thirds are
serving their first Michigan
prison terms.
• Most lifers have good institutional records.
• Of more than 13,000 prisoners currently serving for
offenses punishable by life or
any term of years, only 10%
received life.
• Although they became paroleeligible in 10 years, the lifers
have served 22 years on
average — far more time than
others convicted of similar
crimes.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Half (51.1 percent) were convicted of second-degree murder. The rest were convicted of criminal
sexual conduct (18.7 percent), armed robbery (12.8
percent), assault with intent to murder (7.8 percent), other assaultive crimes (6.2 percent), drug
possession or delivery of over 650 grams (2.8 percent) or of non-assaultive crimes as habitual offenders (0.5 percent).
The vast majority of people convicted of offenses
punishable by life or any term of years do not receive life sentences. The 2001 MDOC Statistical
Report provides the latest available information
about the minimum sentences all prisoners are serving. Table 1, following, shows the distribution of
minimum sentences for the four offenses most common among parolable lifers. It also displays the proportion of prisoners who are lifers currently eligible
for parole. The average minimum term excludes

criminal sexual conduct are serving life; of those
sentenced for armed robbery it is less than onetwentieth. In the majority of non-murder cases
and nearly 30 percent of the murders, the minimum sentence is 15 years or less.
These summary figures do not explain the wide
disparities in the sentences being served for violation of the same statutes. Disparities may
result in part from differences in local norms,
offenders’ prior records and the facts of individual crimes, as well as differing approaches
to sentencing by individual judges. Nonetheless, the MDOC database does shed light on
whether the parole-eligible lifers could now be
safely released.
The parole-eligible lifers are much older than
the prison population generally. Their median

Table 1. Minimum terms of prisoners currently serving for four offenses
10 yrs 10.1 - 15.1 – 20.1 – Over
or less 15 yrs 20 yrs 25 yrs 25 yrs
2nd-degree
murder
Assault
with intent
tost murder
1 -degree
criminal
sexual
conduct
Armed
robbery

Life

Eligible Total Average
lifers
Minimum

564
580
719
426
382
629
709
10.7% 17.6% 19.8% 15.7% 16.2% 20.0% 11.9% 3,583

21.9

471
293
207
36.0% 22.1% 15.6%

105
7.9%

130
9.8%

119
9.0%

65
4.9% 1,325

16.0

1.594 738
569
40.0% 18.6% 14.4%
3,019 578
378
67.1% 12.9% 8.4%

319
426
8.1% 10.8%
149
174
3.3% 3.9%

315
8.0%
199
4.4%

156
3.9% 3,961
107
2.4% 4,497

life sentences.
As Table 1 demonstrates, only one-fifth of all prisoners convicted of second-degree murder are serving life terms. Less than one-tenth of prisoners
convicted of assault with intent to murder and

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

15.8
9.9

age is 49. Twelve percent (97 people) are more
than 60 years old.
The lifers’ greater age is related to the years they
have served in prison. The average time served
by those convicted of non-drug offenses is 22

23

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

years. Fifty-eight percent (471 people) have served more than 20 years. Thus, well over half were
sentenced not only before the current legislative sentencing guidelines took effect but also before the
prior sentencing guidelines, devised by the Michigan Supreme Court, became effective in 1984. Onethird (270 people) have served more than 25 years. That is, they were sentenced in the 1970s or earlier,
when judges knew that lifers were commonly paroled. Ninety-seven members of the parole-eligible
group have served more than 30 years.
There is no doubt that lifers actually serve far more time than others convicted of similar offenses.
Table 2 shows how many prisoners were serving sentences for second-degree murder, assault with
intent to murder, rape or first-degree criminal sexual conduct and armed robbery in 1978. It then
shows how many were continuously incarcerated until 2003, 25 years later.
The difference in years served between those who received life sentences and those who received indeterminate terms is dramatic. Of the 3,737 non-lifers serving in 1978, only 69 – fewer than two percent
Table 2. Prisoners who have served > 25 years for four offenses

2nd–degree
murder
Assault
with intent
to murder
Rape/1stdegree
CSC
Armed
robbery

NonLifers
Non-lifers still
lifers
serving
in
serving in 1978 serving
2003
in 1978
24
717
382 “A” prefix
=9
46

“A” prefix = 1

473

102

“A” prefix = 2

2,353

128

“A” prefix = 1

– were still serving the same sentence in 2003.
Of the 658 prisoners who were serving life, 301
– 46 percent – are still incarcerated. The disparity does not stem from differences in prior
record. Nearly half the lifers who have served
more than 25 years – 144 people — have “A”
prefixes, indicating that they are serving their
first sentence in a Michigan prison. Only 13
non-lifers with “A” prefixes have served that
long.

24

6

194

17
22

Lifers still
serving in
2003
191

“A” prefix = 95

23

“A” prefix = 14

40

“A” prefix =16

47

“A” prefix = 19

It is fair to assume that most non-lifers were paroled. Some prisoners are discharged only after serving their maximum sentences. Some people die in
prison. A handful get their convictions reversed
on appeal. However, since generous good time provisions were in effect for sentences imposed through
1978, even people with very long indeterminate
terms were able to earn release. Lifers, who earn no
good time and have no minimum “out date”, have

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

largely just been left to continue doing time.
For the entire group of parole-eligible lifers, it seems apparent that
relatively few received life sentences because of prior records. These
prisoners have been incarcerated for so long that the database does
not contain sufficient information to analyze their prior felony convictions in detail. However, fully two-thirds are serving their first
Michigan prison terms and 86 percent had served no more than
one.
It is also apparent that the vast majority of these lifers are not being
denied release based on their institutional conduct. By MDOC
policy, lifers are no longer classified at Level I (minimum security).
However, over 87 percent of the currently parole-eligible lifers are
classified at Level II. In the preceding three years, over 45 percent
had not had a single misconduct citation, 73 percent had not had
more than two, and 83 percent had not had any non-bondable misconducts (the most serious kind). The lifers’ misconduct histories
compare favorably with those of prisoners granted parole and awaiting release.
In sum, the evidence suggests several reasons why paroling eligible
lifers should be considered.
First, research shows that criminal behavior declines as people get
older. After age 30, every type of crime declines with each passing
decade.2 Thus the lifers’ greater age is in itself a strong indicator that
they are unlikely to commit new offenses.
Second, ironically, the very seriousness of the lifers’ crimes indicates a lower likelihood of recidivism. MDOC data indicate that
recidivism rates are lower for parolees whose offenses were crimes
against people than for other offenders. Of 1,999 people convicted of homicide, assault, robbery or criminal sexual conduct
who were paroled in 1990, more than 93 percent did not commit
another assaultive or sexual offense while on parole.3 While paroles are granted to these prisoners more cautiously, this data also
suggests that most lifers are unlikely to reoffend.
Third, thousands of prisoners convicted of the same offenses have
been paroled over the last three decades. In each of those cases,
the parole board conducted an individualized risk assessment before reaching its decision. There is no reason to believe that lifers

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Some points
to consider
• Criminal behavior declines
sharply as people get
older.
• Parolees whose offenses
were crimes against
people have lower recidivism rates than other
offenders.
• Thousands of prisoners
convicted of the same
offenses as the paroleeligible lifers have been
released over the last
three decades.
• The majority of paroleeligible lifers were convicted before sentencing
guidelines took effect;
many would not receive
life terms today.
• Lifers are uniquely expensive. Because they are an
aging population, their
medical care costs are
vastly higher.
• If even 200 older parolable
lifers who could have been
safely released spend 10
additional years at a cost
of $50,000 each, the total
cost to taxpayers will be
$100 million.

25

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

are at greater risk for re-offending solely because
they received life sentences rather than terms of
years or that similar individualized risk assessments would not protect the public adequately.
Still another important point is that lifers are
uniquely expensive. Since most are housed at
lower security prisons, their sheer custody costs
are “only” about $19,000 a year. Thus each fiveyear continuance costs a minimum of $95,000.
However, this figure does not include medical
care, which averages nearly $3,500 a year for
Michigan prisoners generally. For lifers, because
they are an aging population, the medical care
costs are vastly higher. National estimates are that
it costs as much as $69,000 a year to maintain an
aging prisoner.
The Sentencing Project estimates that the total
lifetime cost for a lifer who serves 40 years is $1
million.4 If each of Michigan’s 4,600 lifers (parolable and non-parolable) serves that long, the
total cost over time will be $4.6 billion. Less dramatic but quite realistic are the foreseeable costs
of the parole board’s “life means life” policy over
the next decade. If even 200 older parolable lifers
who could have been safely released spend 10 additional years at a cost of $50,000 each, the total
cost to taxpayers will be $100 million.
Warehousing an ever-growing number of lifers
who could, by law, be paroled simply to enforce
the current philosophy that life should mean life
has no apparent benefit to public safety. The disparities that appear to exist among similarly culpable prisoners sentenced at different times by different judges suggest the need for the parole board
to undertake a leveling function that only it is in a
position to perform. Assessing each of these lifers
by the same criteria that are applied to similar of-

26

fenders serving indeterminate terms would seem to
be not only the fairest but the most cost-effective
approach

Endnotes
1. Available on the CAPPS website, www.capps-mi.org.
2. For an analysis of the Michigan prisoner population
by age and offense, see CAPPS, The high cost of denying parole: an analysis of prisoners eligible for release, op. cit., pg. 22.
3. Id. at pgs. 20-21. A recent Justice Department study
of 9,691 male sex offenders released in 15 states (including
Michigan) in 1994 showed that only 3.5 percent were convicted of another sex offense within three years. Langan,
Schmitt and Durose, Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from
Prison in 1994, Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.,
November 2003).
4. Mauer, King and Young, The Meaning of “Life”: Long
Prison Sentences in Context, The Sentencing Project (Washington, D.C., May 2004), pg. 25.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Prisoner profiles

BLANK

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

About these profiles
The 20 prisoners whose stories are told here represent about 850 Michigan lifers who are currently
eligible for parole. They are male and female, African-American, white and Hispanic, from all over
the state. Their situations exemplify the issues raised
in this report.
The facts of these prisoners’ offenses are often disturbing, despite the passage of decades. But the
decision the parole board must make is whether
they would present a risk to the public if released
today. That assessment requires examining who
each person was at the time of the crime and how
he or she has changed. Therefore, each profile gives
background information about the person’s life before prison, their crime, their conduct while in
prison, the observations of custodial staff and psychologists, and their treatment by the board. Readers can then draw their own conclusions about
whether the standard for release has been met and
whether punishment has served its purpose.
Most of these lifers were under the age of 23 when
they committed their offenses. Several were 19;
Mares was 18; Vargas was 17; Hayes and Phillips
were 16-year-olds waived from juvenile court. Twothirds had no prior criminal convictions – only three
had been to prison before.
More than half of those profiled were convicted of
second-degree murder, but others received life terms
for such offenses as armed robbery, criminal sexual
conduct, kidnapping, drug possession and conspiracy to murder. The facts of these offenses vary
widely. James Percy, for instance, was armed only
with his hand in his pocket when he robbed a bookstore of $62. A few were highly situational crimes
involving family issues. Moran killed his estranged

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

wife; Rodriguez killed a young man who was threatening his family. Several people were acting at the
direction of an older co-defendant or husband or
boyfriend.
While all these prisoners became eligible for parole
after serving 10 years, nearly all have served at least
25. Some have served more than 30. The severity
of their treatment can be measured by several yardsticks.
In the early 1980s, over half the group received “grid
scores” from the MDOC of 14 years or less. While
these scores, resulting from the calculation of Commutation and Long Term Release Guidelines, were
not binding on the parole board, they were designed
to provide guidance about when release would be
appropriate for a particular offender, assuming a
clean institutional record. Until the guidelines were
rescinded in 1992, board members routinely discussed them with prisoners at parole interviews.
The scores reflect what were considered, 20 years
ago, to be reasonable expectations of how long these
lifers would actually serve.
A more current yardstick is the sentence the person would receive if convicted today. Since 1984,
judges have had to follow sentencing guidelines that
place boundaries on the exercise of their sentencing power. Designed to avoid sentences that are
arbitrary or excessively long, the guidelines assess
points for various characteristics of the offense and
for the defendant’s prior record. The guidelines
score is then used to calculate a range within which
the judge is supposed to select the defendant’s minimum sentence. For instance, if the guidelines recommendation is 144 to 240 months, the minimum
sentence must be from 12 to 20 years. A judge can

29

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

choose a sentence longer than the high end of the
guidelines range only for “substantial and compelling reasons” that are subject to appellate review.
By statute, nearly all the offenses of which these lifers
were convicted carried penalties of “life or any term,”
which gave the sentencing judge the option of imposing life or selecting both a minimum and maximum number of years. However, the sentencing
guidelines narrow judicial discretion so that, in many
cases, a life term is no longer an option. Even where
life is an allowable choice, the alternative recommendation is for a minimum term that may be as low as
13½ years.
Had they been sentenced after 1983, 12 of the profiled lifers would not even have received a life term.
Recommended minimum sentences would have
been as low as 6¾ years (Percy, Bullock), 9 years
(Vargas, Wilson, Weisenauer), 11¼ years (Lawrence,
Schraw) or 12 years (Kenneth Foster, Moran, Phillips,
Rodriguez, Mares).
Still another yardstick is the view of the judge in a
particular case. Rodriguez, Kenneth Foster and
Weisenauer have letters from their sentencing judges
expressly stating that they chose parolable life terms
on the understanding that the defendant would
serve only 10-12 years, assuming a good institutional record. In several other cases, judges have
indicated that they believe the person could safely
re-enter the community and that they have no objection to parole. Hayes, Hessell, Rodriguez and
Wilson all pled guilty on the specific understanding that they could earn release in 10 or 12 years.
Also noteworthy is the view of the Michigan Supreme Court. Bullock and Jahner were both sentenced under statutes that required the sentencing
judge to impose a life term. Each of them raised
on appeal the question of whether these mandatory terms, one for possession of more than 650

30

grams of drugs and the other for conspiracy to murder, were nonetheless parolable. In each case the
Court engaged in lengthy analyses, then concluded
that the prisoners were, indeed, eligible for parole
after serving 10 years. It is clear that the Court believed the difference between the two types of life
terms would have real practical significance.
The parole board itself has shown interest in granting parole to five of these lifers and then withdrawn
it, even though the prisoner had done nothing to
warrant such an about-face. In the case of Reynaldo
Rodriguez, the board actually conducted a public
hearing, then withdrew interest based on details of
the offense it had known about for 18 years.
A few cases have uniquely favorable factors that have
nonetheless failed to move the board. The victim
and the Kent County prosecutor have written to
the board on behalf of Ross Hayes. Similarly, Gerald
Hessell’s surviving victim supports his release on
parole. Hessell and Henry Phillips both had equally
culpable co-defendants who were paroled after serving far less time.
All these lifers have worked hard to earn their release. Many completed college when that opportunity was still available to prisoners. Some developed special skills that will enhance their chances
for employment in the free world. Many completed
group counseling or other forms of therapy before
changes in eligibility criteria made those programs
unavailable to lifers. Many have made remarkable
turnarounds in their attitudes, accomplishments
and relationships with others. A few were even
trusted to work at regular jobs in the community
before such placements were prohibited.
These men and women all have attributes that make
them stand out, but they are not unique in their
suitability for release on parole. Behind these 20
pictures and life stories lie hundreds more, equally
worthy of careful, individualized consideration.
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Henry Phillips, 128597
Parole eligible since 1981
Phillips was a homeless 16-year-old when he accompanied two older men on a gas station robbery that
turned to murder.
According to the pre-sentence investigator, Henry
Phillips “grew up as a very lonely and very deprived
boy.” He was expelled from school in 8th grade.
His father was a chronic alcoholic; his mother was
a semi-invalid who died when Phillips was 15. Following his mother’s death, he went to live in Michigan with an abusive
uncle. After 15
months, Phillips ran
away.
In October 1970,
16-year-old Phillips
and Tom Grifka, a
20-year-old Job
Corps acquaintance,
met Ray Doerfer,
age 28, in a shelter
Henry Phillips
in
Milwaukee.
Doerfer had a long
criminal record in at least two states.
Eventually, the three returned to Michigan, where
they decided to rob a gas station in Holly. Although
Phillips and Grifka knew Doerfer had a loaded
handgun, they didn’t believe he would hurt anyone. Grifka was in the bathroom and Phillips was
in an alcove getting coffee when they heard shots.
They went into the service area and saw that Doerfer
had killed the 18-year-old attendant. Doerfer held
the gun on them and ordered them to drag the body
into a storage area.
Arrested a few days later, all three were charged with

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

first-degree murder. Doerfer was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Grifka pled guilty to
second-degree murder, received 10-40 years and was
paroled in 1978.
Although he had no prior record and thus had never
been treated in the juvenile system (a factor judges
had to consider at the time), Phillips was waived
from juvenile court to Oakland Circuit Court for
trial as an adult. He pled guilty to second-degree
murder and was sentenced to parolable life. The
pre-sentence investigator described him as rebellious, insolent and unremorseful for the death. No
family member was present during any of the proceedings. Under current sentencing guidelines,
Phillips’ recommended minimum sentence would
be between 12 and 20 years.
At 17, Phillips had a hard time adjusting to prison
and received many misconduct citations. Nonetheless, he earned a GED in 1973 and work supervisors found him to be cooperative and conscientious . A frequent target of sexual predators, Phillips
spent a great deal of time in protective custody. He
attempted suicide three times in the 1970s. In 1974
he was found with a homemade knife and pled
guilty to carrying a concealed weapon. That same
year, though, the warden at the Michigan Reformatory commended him for helping staff subdue a
violent inmate.
By the early 1980s Phillips had earned 41 college
credits and completed a course in group counseling. He says, “I finally realized I was beating my
head against a wall” and decided to stop. His attitude and behavior improved markedly. He became
certified in several aspects of auto repair.
Phillips has worked steadily, including nine years
at prison industries, receiving good to excellent reports on all his assignments. He currently works as
an ABE/GED tutor. Since 1990 he has participated

31

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

regularly in several Christian ministries, especially
witnessing and gospel music.
Over the years there were many indications that
Phillips would be released while he was still fairly
young. His grid term was 10 years. In 1979, the
interviewing parole board member wrote:
Could be a good lifer law case if he’d establish
some kind of adjustment record.
Interview notes from 1984 state:
Has avoided problems over four-five years and
appears very stable today. Good work reports
on a responsible assignment. He has matured
into a fairly responsible adult.
That same year, the chairman wrote:
If he continues present trend, may have interest
after next interview.
However, Phillips never obtained majority support.
After a positive interview in 1994, the board ordered a psychological report. Although that report
cites many factors which make him a good parole
risk — his emotional stability, avoidance of assaultive behavior, his ability to persist in school and work,
his lack of involvement in drug or alcohol abuse,
and the support of his older brother and the
brother’s church in Memphis –only two members
expressed interest in proceeding.
A prison chaplain who knew Phillips throughout
the ‘90s wrote in 1999:
[I] watched him grow as a Christian and as a
human being . . . He works hard to incorporate his Christian principles into his daily duties … Hank is respected by his peers and enjoys
good rapport with prison staff.
Nevertheless, following Phillips’ 1999 interview, the
board again had no interest in his release.

32

In 2004, Phillips was not even interviewed. The
board simply reviewed his file and sent him another “no interest” notice. His next consideration
date is scheduled for 2009, when he will be 56
and will have served 39 years.

Reynaldo Rodriguez, 149675
Parole eligible since 1986

The board held a pubic hearing in 1994 but decided
not to parole Rodriguez based on details of the offense
it had known about since 1976.
Reynaldo Rodriguez was a 20-year-old husband and
father when, as the presentence investigator put it,
he “inadvertently became caught up in a vendetta
situation.” The fifth of six children in a close-knit
Saginaw family,
Rodriguez had no
criminal convictions
and no substance
abuse problem. At
the time he killed
Robert Cuellar, he
was employed as a
service representative
for Pitney Bowes.
The Cuellar family
had ongoing disputes
with both the
Reynaldo Rodriguez
Rodriguez
and
Barrera families. At an Easter dance in 1976, Robert Cuellar threatened harm to Rodriguez’s younger
brother Cruz. In June, someone shot at Cruz. The
brothers believed it was Cuellar. Several days later
shots were fired at Rodriguez’s home. Someone also
shot at his mother’s house. The Barreras believed

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

that Robert Cuellar had killed an older member of
their family.
The presentence report contains Rodriguez’s detailed description of what happened in July.
Rodriguez, Cruz, Raymond Barrera and Barrera’s
brother-in-law were playing baseball. Rodriguez’s
sister came to tell him that Cueller had just threatened him and Cruz, stating he was going to finish
what he started. The four men decided to drive
around and look for Cuellar. When they saw him
riding a bicycle, Rodriguez stopped the car and
challenged Cuellar to a fist fight. Barrera placed a
gun on the car’s console. When Cuellar made a
sudden move towards his waistband, Rodriguez
thought Cuellar was reaching for a gun. He took
the gun from the console and shot at Cuellar several times. When Cuellar continued to pedal,
Rodriguez shot several times more until Cuellar fell
off the bike. Someone in the vehicle said: “You
better make sure he’s dead.” Rodriguez left the car
and shot Cuellar a seventh time at close range.
Rodriguez pled guilty to second-degree murder. His
defense attorney has explained in an affidavit that
Judge Gary McDonald offered Rodriguez a choice
between 15-30 years or parolable life. At the time,
the earliest that parole could occur on a 15 year
minimum was 12 1/3 years. Since Judge McDonald
said that he would recommend parole at ten years
on the life sentence if Rodriguez were a model prisoner, Rodriguez opted for the life term. Under
today’s sentencing guidelines, the recommended
minimum would be between 12 and 20 years.
At sentencing, Judge McDonald spoke about the
letters of support for Rodriguez he had received,
the absence of a prior record and the harm caused
by feuds and vendettas. McDonald concluded:
And I feel myself, at this time, that you will
not be any menace to society when you’re released in ten years.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Rodriguez lived up to the judge’s expectations. He
completed his GED, took college classes and completed a course in auto mechanics. He received only
seven misconduct citations in 27 years. He also
completed two years of group psychotherapy. In
his 1984 termination report, the psychologist described Rodriguez as displaying excellent sensitivity to other people’s feelings, having excellent skills
in negotiating conflicts constructively and having
a good prognosis for parole.
Above all, Rodriguez worked hard, sending home
the money he made to help support his son. Among
other jobs, he spent more than 13 years working
for prison industries, primarily as a head mechanic
responsible for maintaining machinery in the garment factory. His reference letters from three different factory superintendents are filled with praise
for his knowledge, skills, dependability and ability
to work cooperatively with both prisoners and staff.
One letter, written in 1984, concluded:
I very seriously doubt that he will ever get into
trouble again, and expect him to become a lawabiding citizen upon his release.
Rodriguez first became eligible for parole in 1986.
True to his word, Judge McDonald wrote several
letters affirming his support for Rodriguez’s release.
However, the board showed no interest until May
1992, when the “old” board notified Rodriguez it
would begin processing his case. In March 1993,
the “new” board also voted unanimously to proceed.
The public hearing was held in January 1994. A
dozen people attended on behalf of Rodriguez.
Sixteen officers who had known him during the 10
years he served at Kinross Correctional Facility
signed a petition supporting his release. No one
opposed it.
The presiding board member cross-examined

33

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Rodriguez about whether the shooting had been
an act of vengeance or self-defense. Rodriguez insisted he had thought Cuellar had a weapon but
also agreed when the board member characterized
vengeance as a motivation.
The board issued its decision two months later:
Following the public hearing of 01/10/94, the
parole board has reviewed your case in executive session and has withdrawn interest for the
following reasons: Nature of crime as described
in public hearing causes further concern. During public hearing you admitted the fatal shot
was act of vengeance. Victim was shot a total of
7 times, the last shot was reflected upon by you
and was unnecessary. No interest at this time.
The board interviewed Rodriguez again in January
1999. Again it had “no interest.” In 2003, the
board merely reviewed his file. It then notified
Rodriguez that it still had no interest and he would
be considered next in 2008, when he will have served
32 years.

Gladys D. Wilson, 157538
Parole eligible since 1988

Although her 1978 guilty plea was designed to permit
release in 10 years, her institutional record is exceptional, she would not receive a life sentence today and
the parole board has repeatedly shown interest in releasing her, Wilson was recently continued until 2008.
In 1978, Gladys Wilson was the 31-year old mother
of an 11-year-old girl. She had worked at the same
company for ten years and had no prior record.
However, she and her husband, Jerry, were having

34

marital and financial problems. When Jerry decided to rob a Berrien County grocery store, Wilson agreed to leave him there and pick him up later,
after the store had
closed. She had
no idea Jerry
would kill the
young night manager.
Charged with aiding and abetting
felony-murder,
Wilson cooperated with the police
in
her
husband’s prosGladys Wilson
ecution. She was
allowed to plead guilty to aiding and abetting armed
robbery. Although sentenced to parolable life, everyone involved assumed she would not serve much
more than 10 years. This assumption was confirmed in 1982 when the board calculated Wilson’s
grid term at 10 years. Her defense attorney later
explained in an affidavit:
There has always been consensus among the
people familiar with all the details of the case
that Mrs. Wilson was far less culpable than her
husband. For her to spend her entire life in
prison, just as he will, would not only be grossly
unjust, but would wholly negate the benefit she
was supposed to derive from her plea bargain.
Under today’s sentencing guidelines, Wilson’s recommended minimum sentence would be between
9 and 15 years.
As early as 1983, staff reported Wilson to be cooperative, mature and self-disciplined, and suggested that she should be given “early consideration” for release. A 1985 report stated that she
“is well-respected by both prisoners and staff ” and

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

that she “has an excellent attitude and has attempted to make the best of a bad situation.” She
has received only one misconduct citation in all
the years of her incarceration.
Wilson took full advantage of the programming
available to her in prison and has been placed in
numerous positions of responsibility. She earned
67 college credits with a cumulative grade point
of 3.7. She also obtained a paralegal certificate.
She has worked as a resident aide in a protective
environment for mentally and physically impaired
inmates, as a lab technician in the prison clinic, as
a teacher’s aide, tutor and administrative assistant.
For several years, she served as trustee of an inmate trust fund and she volunteered to help set
up and run the law library at Camp Gilman. For
many years she served as the class representative
in a lawsuit aimed at improving conditions in the
women’s prisons.
In 1986, the parole board confirmed its intent to
release Wilson when she had served 10 years. It
requested that she be transferred so she could spend
her last year in minimum custody. In February
1987, Wilson was moved to Camp Gilman. A
year later the board voted to begin the parole process under the lifer law. Wilson waited, but the
board took no further action. When her family
contacted the board for information, they were
told that the board was overburdened and that
lifers had been put “on the back burner.” Finally,
in May 1992, the parole board wrote that it would
begin actively processing her case in the next few
months. Although nothing more was done before the board was reconstituted in October 1992,
after reviewing Wilson’s file in 1993, the new board
also voted to proceed to a public hearing.
All consideration stopped when the successor judge
objected to Wilson’s parole “until she had served
20 years.” The board notified Wilson that it would

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

not review her again until 1998. Having spent
six years in a minimum custody prison camp waiting for release, Wilson was transferred back to a
secure facility because parole was no longer imminent.
In 1998, when Wilson had completed 20 years,
the board did not recontact the sentencing court.
After one member conducted a routine interview,
the board simply notified her that it had “no interest.”
Wilson was interviewed next in April 2003. By
then the successor judge, persuaded that Wilson
had served more than enough time for her role in
the offense, had written to the board strongly urging her release. Wilson believed she might finally
be freed to live in Virginia with her daughter and
grandchildren. However, in October the board
notified her that, once again, it had no interest.
Wilson’s health is now starting to decline. In the
spring of 2004 she spent several days hospitalized
in intensive care before being diagnosed as an insulin-dependent diabetic. When she is next reviewed in 2008, she will be 61 years old and will
have been in prison 30 years.

Leslie G. Moran, 149819
Parole eligible since 1986
Psychologists say this former college instructor who has
served 28 years for killing his wife presents no risk to
the community, but the parole board disagrees.
When Leslie Moran was growing up, his family’s
life revolved around the Baptist church and the
father’s ministry. Household rules were strict and
Moran felt isolated. At 17, he followed the path of

35

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

his three older brothers into the military.

to save their failing marriage.

When he returned home after four years in the Air
Force, Moran enrolled at Michigan State University-Oakland, graduating in 1965. He earned a
master’s degree in Eastern European history before
beginning work as an instructor at Oakland Community College.

When Debbie arrived, talk about their marriage escalated into a heated argument. Moran showed
her the loaded gun and threatened to commit suicide. After 40 minutes, Debbie was determined to
leave. Moran grabbed the pistol and shot her several times. He then wandered out into the yard,
shaking his head. When a neighbor spoke to him,
he said, “Joan, do me a favor. Take me to the police
station. I just killed Debbie.” Police found Moran
sitting on a wooden fence in the yard, the pistol in
his jacket pocket. As an officer led him to the patrol car, Moran began sobbing.

His first marriage having failed in 1969, Moran
married again in 1974. He and his wife, Debbie,
appeared to be a successful young couple, taking
upscale vacations and buying a home in West
Bloomfield. By the second year, though, the marriage was in trouble.
In January 1976, the
couple began a cycle
of separating and
reconciling until
they separated permanently in July.
Moran, in emotional turmoil over
the
impending
breakup of his secLeslie Moran
ond marriage, continued trying to persuade his wife to work at saving it. When she would not, he felt abandoned
and inadequate. His life started spinning out of
control. Friends and acquaintances noticed his
disheveled appearance and extreme mood swings.
The psychologist he began seeing for help found
him to be out of touch with reality. She warned
Debbie that he could be dangerous to himself or
others.
On Sept. 20, 1976, Moran went to a gun shop and
purchased a shotgun and a pistol. He pretended
to prepare for an out-of-town trip, then called
Debbie and persuaded her to take him to the airport on the pretext that his mother in Florida was
very ill. His real purpose was to make a final effort

36

In 1977, after a two-week bench trial, Moran was
found guilty of second-degree murder and given a
life sentence. Moran’s trial attorney has stated:
Judge Gilbert clearly understood the difference
between 1st and 2nd degree life … I recall the
specific discussion with her…that parole would
almost be a certainty in less than 20 years with
a good institutional record.
Under today’s sentencing guidelines, the recommended minimum sentence would be between 12
and 20 years.
Moran participated in extensive individual and
group psychotherapy while in prison. Calling him
a situational offender whose crime of passion
would be unlikely to be repeated, a psychologist
wrote in 1983:
Moran [is] remorseful and has accepted responsibility for the crime … Prognosis for release
seems to be favorable. He would be a good candidate for pre-release on . . . community programs.
The psychologist who conducted Moran’s therapy
group observed in 1987:

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

He is clearly not [now] mentally ill [or] a criminal by nature . . . I would like to state clearly
that I do not view Les as a threat to the community upon release.
Moran has stayed in contact with family and old
friends. All remember him as charming, non-violent and willing to go out of his way to help others. Many have offered to open their homes to
him and assist him in his transition to free society.
In 1983, the parole board chair wrote of Moran:
He is a bright, articulate guy who I don’t see as
a risk, so it’s a case of time . . . guideline score
[14 years] looks about right to me.
In 1985, the board confirmed Moran’s grid score
of 14 years, minus one year for excellent behavior. In 1987, when he had been parole-eligible
for a year, the full board considered Moran’s case
but decided he had not served enough time. After interviews in 1992 and 1997, it simply sent
him “no interest” notices.
In 2002, the parole board again had no interest.
Despite all the prior assessments, the member who
interviewed Moran concluded:
P[risoner] says he was emotionally at his end
when he killed his wife, has a very difficult
time explaining his actions. I am not satisfied
that the risk has been reduced due to insufficient insight into this event.
Moran’s next consideration date is in 2007 when
he will be 66 years old and will have served 31
years.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

James Robert Percy, 146212
Parole eligible since 1986
Percy has served 28 years for robbery while armed with
a hand in his pocket, an offense that might bring 7
years today.
There is no question that James Percy has not made
life easy for himself, either as a young man or during his 28 years in prison. However, despite his
conviction for robbery and a boatload of misconduct citations, Percy has never actually caused anyone serious physical harm.
Percy, now 53 years old, had a number of juvenile
court contacts as a
teenager. He was
placed on probation
twice in 1969, once
for breaking and entering a business and
once for assaulting a
teacher.
He
dropped out of
school in the 10th
grade. In 1970,
Percy was convicted
of uttering and publishing and placed
on probation.
Robert Percy and wife
In his early 20s,
Percy settled down and fathered two sons. In 1975,
he had worked for Chrysler Corp. for more than
two years and, for a while, had worked a second job
as well. He was saving to buy a house for his family,
but he was also helping to support another woman
he was involved with, Judith Claxton. Looking for
an easy way to get more money, Percy entered a theater in Detroit with his hand in his pocket, claiming
to have a gun. He obtained $76 from the cashier

37

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

and left. He was convicted of assault with intent to
commit unarmed robbery and, on March 1, 1976,
was placed on five years’ probation.
Three weeks spent in jail for that case cost Percy his
job. Just nine days after being sentenced to probation he committed virtually the same offense again.
This time he walked into a bookstore with his hand
in his pocket, claimed to have a gun and obtained
$62. Under current sentencing guidelines Percy’s
minimum sentence would be between 6¾ and 11¼
years.
When he sentenced Percy to life, Judge John P.
O’Brien stressed the fact that Percy had just received a break from another judge. It is clear, however, from his handling of a different case, nine
years later, that Judge O’Brien did not believe Percy
would actually spend much more than a decade in
prison. In 1985, Judge O’Brien sentenced 17-yearold Kenneth White to life for second-degree murder plus two years for felony firearm. Judge
O’Brien later signed an affidavit stating that he
had intended White to serve a total of no more
than 15 years
Percy did not adjust well to prison. He says that,
among other things, he was reacting to marital
problems and the inability to see his sons, the fact
that his mother was dying of cancer, and his bitterness at seeing other people who were convicted
of murder serve shorter sentences than his.
By the time he was first interviewed by the parole
board in June 1983, he had received misconduct
citations on 26 occasions. While many of these
were disobeying an order or being out of place,
several were for assaultive behavior. None involved
actual injury to anyone. The interviewing board
member noted the misconducts but also observed
that Percy’s grid score suggested he should serve
eight years. She commented: “maybe 10 yr case.”

38

The same board member interviewed Percy again in
1985 and was willing to start the public hearing process, but other members disagreed. Percy continued
to receive misconducts, primarily for insolence, and
in 1991, the board again had no interest.
Since then, Percy’s institutional conduct has changed
markedly. He has received only six misconduct citations in the last 10 years. He has been housed at
Level II since 1996 and gets good block reports. He
has completed his GED, several vocational skills
courses and group counseling. He has no substance
abuse history. His sons each have four-year-olds of
their own; he and Judith Claxton are now married.
Nonetheless, after interviewing Percy in 1996, the
board had no interest in proceeding. In 2001 it did
not even bother to see him face-to-face. It simply
reviewed his file, notified him that it had “no interest,” and scheduled the next review for August
2006. At that point, Percy will be 56 years old and
will have served over 30 years for taking $62 by
pretending he had a gun.

Martin Vargas, 133525
Parole eligible since 1982
Despite positive recommendations after six parole interviews and a unanimous vote to proceed by the full
board in 1993, Vargas is the only first-time offender
in Michigan who has served 32 years for a single count
of rape.
Martin Vargas is the second oldest of 13 children
in a close-knit Mexican-American family. He had
no juvenile court contacts but was arrested for an
adult felony when he was 17.
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

On an evening in October 1971, Vargas, another
17-year-old named Eduardo Guerrero, and a 15year-old forced their way into the car of a 17-yearold girl at a Saginaw shopping mall. They drove
the victim to a park, where they raped her and
forced her to perform fellatio, releasing her after
4½ hours.
When he sentenced Vargas to a life term, Judge
Hazen Armstrong said:
So far as what that means, your attorney will
explain it to you.
In 2001, after Judge Armstrong had died, Vargas’
trial attorney explained in an affidavit the understanding of a parolable life term shared by the
Saginaw bench and bar in 1972. He concluded:
I firmly believe Judge Armstrong anticipated
that Mr. Vargas would be released when he
was still a relatively young man.
Under current sentencing guidelines, Vargas would
receive a minimum sentence between 9 and 15
years.
The younger co-defendant was processed as a juvenile. Guerrero was convicted of additional rapes
involving two other victims and is serving three
concurrent life terms. Guerrero’s sentencing judge
is on record saying that he intended parole consideration after 10 years and that he did not intend a
17-year-old to spend the rest of his life in prison.
During his first few years in prison, Vargas was angry and rebellious. He accumulated 11 misconduct citations for such behavior as fighting, possessing contraband and disobeying direct orders.
During the same period, however, he earned his
GED and an associate’s degree. He also worked as
an assistant in the college program and tutored students in Spanish.
As he got older, Vargas built a solid record of ac-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

complishments. In the 1980s he completed several vocational courses. In 1988, he received a commendation for preventing “life threatening injury”
when another prisoner attacked a physician’s assistant. In 1990, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree with honors. Staff evaluations of his work as
an aide on a geriatric unit were excellent. More
recently, he co-facilitated substance abuse prevention groups with staff.
In the early 1990s Vargas began to develop his considerable talent as an artist. Since 1994, he has
been a tutor in a
prison art program. He has won
awards every year
at the University of
Michigan Prisoner
Art Exhibit. The
faculty members
who curate the
show praise his
“technical virtuosMartin Vargas
ity” and “his
unique personal vision.” Paintings Vargas donated
to a 1998 Lansing fundraiser raised over $1,200
for Honduran victims of Hurricane Mitch.
Vargas participated in group sex offender counseling for nearly four years. In a 1989 termination
report, the therapist wrote:
Despite the number of years he has been in
the system, he shows evidence of psychosexual
maturity that is virtually exemplary in this
setting.
Two independent psychological evaluations completed in 2001 conclude that his offense reflected
adolescent conflicts and that Vargas presents minimal risk for any sort of antisocial behavior. Vargas
retains the support of his extended family, a broad
network of friends, and his wife, Barbara Levine,

39

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

whom he married in 1994.
Various parole board members who met Vargas in
person have been favorably impressed. Interview
notes from his first interview in 1979 say: “looks
like good 10 yr case.” In July 1982, his grid score
was calculated as 14 years. The next month, board
member Tripp said after interviewing him that she
could proceed at 12 years.
After a December 1989 interview, board member
Walbrecq noted Vargas’ grid score, achievements
and family support and concluded:
– done all he can, would start process.
However, nothing happened until early 1992, when
board member Makel interviewed Vargas, then
wrote:
I support starting the process. Over the years
there has been support. 20 yrs in now – Grid
was 14 – not much more he could do – has
support systems…
In March 1992, the board voted 5-0 to proceed to
public hearing, but again nothing happened.
After the board was reconstituted, a roller coaster
ride began. In January 1993, the new board considered Vargas and voted 7-1 that it had no interest. Then it decided to see him. Board member
Gach conducted the interview and he, too, made a
positive recommendation. The full board considered Vargas again. This time the vote was 5-5, one
shy of the simple majority needed to proceed.
In August 1993, board member Rivers, who had
voted against Vargas, met him when he was interpreting for a Spanish-speaking prisoner. Impressed
by his demeanor, she spoke to institutional staff,
then decided to change her vote. In September the
full board voted 10-0 in favor of proceeding to public hearing.

successor in office of its intent. The successor, a
former prosecutor, objected to parole based solely
on the offense. The public hearing process stopped
and Vargas spent the next five years trying to appeal the judge’s objection. Eventually, the judge
stated that he had been disqualified from the case
and that the appropriate successor was actually
Judge Leopold Borrello.
By 1998, it was time for another routine interview.
Board member Slaughter made a positive recommendation, but the board did not try to proceed
again. A few months later, the Michigan Supreme
Court sent the case to Judge Borrello who concluded:
Although Mr. Vargas has been incarcerated his
entire adult life, facts indicate that it is likely
he could successfully enter into the community
and remain a productive citizen.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the parole board for yet another interview, which was
conducted by then-chairperson Marschke on February 25, 1999. Eight days later the board issued a
no interest notice.
Vargas was next seen in April 2003 by board member McNutt who also supported his release. In
October 2003, the full board considered him once
again. Once again, the vote was 5-5.
Vargas turned 50 in January 2004. He has been in
prison longer than any other first offender convicted of a single sex offense. His next review is
scheduled for March 2008, when he will have
served 36 years.

As required, the board notified Judge Armstrong’s

40

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Gregory Lawrence, 154469
Robert Schraw, 154468
Parole eligible since 1988
Reluctant participants in a robbery gone bad, these
co-defendants were already in custody when the ringleader killed a police officer
Gregory Lawrence and Robert Schraw were both
barely 20 when they got involved in a Lansing bank
robbery that led to the murder of a police officer.
The two young men from Kokomo, Indiana, were
traveling in a rented motor home with Lawrence’s
older sister Melony, her two-year-old son, and her
29-year-old boyfriend David Bellah when Bellah
conceived the robbery plan. The idea was to kidnap Lansing bank manager James Spoelma and his
wife Connie from their home, drive them to the
bank and force Spoelma to open the vault.
Lawrence and Schraw repeatedly told Bellah they
wanted nothing to do with his scheme and hoped
he would change his mind. He did not.
On June 16, 1977, the group went to the Spoelma
residence in the motor home. Bellah forced his
way inside, holding the couple at gunpoint. The
others drove the motor home and the Spoelmas’
stolen car back to the campground where they were
staying so they could leave Melony and her toddler
behind. Lawrence and Schraw talked to Melony
about not wanting to be involved in the crime. She
told them they “couldn’t just leave Dave,” so they
returned to the manager’s home “to try and talk
Dave out of it.”
Bellah had no intention of aborting his plan. They
all drove to the bank in the Spoelmas’ car. Once
there, Bellah ordered Lawrence and Schraw to wait
in the parking lot with Mrs. Spoelma as hostage
while he and Mr. Spoelma went inside. Bellah had
given Schraw a gun, but Schraw took the clip out
of it. Inside the bank, an employee tripped an alarm.
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Police converged on the scene.
Lawrence and Schraw discussed surrendering, but
feared they would be shot. They decided to drive
away, but agreed they would not resist if they were
stopped. Both were immediately arrested. They
were in custody and cooperating with police when
Bellah tried to escape in another car with four bank
employees. When an officer approached the car,
shots were fired and the hostages struggled for
Bellah’s gun. The officer was killed. Bellah was
convicted of first-degree murder and is serving the
mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The jury acquitted Lawrence and Schraw of murder. It convicted them of conspiracy to commit
armed robbery and two counts of kidnapping. The
pre-sentence investigator said he did not perceive
either Lawrence or Schraw to be dangerous.
Lawrence had no prior criminal record, juvenile or
adult. Schraw had only one offense — attempted
theft of gasoline — for which he was placed on
juvenile probation. The investigator recommended
that they receive sentences reflecting their passive
involvement in the crimes.
The judge sentenced them each to 20-30 years for
the conspiracy and to two parolable life terms for
the kidnappings, all to run concurrently. They became eligible for parole on the conspiracy count in
1988, after serving 10 years and nine months. They
“maxed out” on their conspiracy sentences in 1996.
Under current sentencing guidelines, their recommended minimum sentences would be between
11¼ and 18¼ years for the conspiracy to rob and
between 9 and 15 years for the kidnapping counts.

Gregory Lawrence
Lawrence was the second of seven children born
and raised in Kokomo, Indiana. As a result of two
divorces, a protracted custody battle and neglect,
Lawrence was shuffled among relatives, various fos-

41

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

ter homes, and an orphanage. He dropped out of
school in the 11th grade to go to work. Early in
1977, a break-up with his fiancee sent Lawrence
into severe depression. He began to drink heavily,
quit his job and moved in with Melony and Bellah.
The psychologist who interviewed and tested
Lawrence prior to his trial said he had “few psychological resources” and was “vulnerable . . . to
manipulation by others.” Lawrence himself said,
“I wanted to talk Dave out of it, but couldn’t say
anything . . . I was scared . . . I didn’t know what to
do.”
As early as 1983, a staff member at the Michigan
Reformatory who prepared Lawrence’s initial Lifer
Review noted that Lawrence had “matured greatly”
from the passive, easily-led young man who arrived
in prison in 1978. His work reports had gone from
fair to excellent. He had earned a GED and an
associate’s degree.
Seven officers and work supervisors who observed
Lawrence daily consistently praised his progress and
performance. All recommended a reduction in custody and favorable consideration for parole. Although unusual for a lifer who had served just seven
years, in 1984 Lawrence was transferred to Camp
Pellston where he remained for 13 months, working at various private businesses in the community.
He was transferred again after receiving an out-ofplace ticket in September 1985 for leaving the unfenced camp temporarily to rendezvous in the
woods with his then-wife .
In succeeding years, Lawrence held increasingly responsible jobs, mainly in the prison industries garment factory. He is also working on a bachelor’s
degree from Indiana University. His current supervisor, who has known Lawrence for 20 years,
says of him:
Greg is knowledgeable, well-disciplined, ma-

42

ture, self-confident and trustworthy . . . . I believe he has done everything possible to prove
he is ready for society . . . . I have spoken with
other civilian employees about Greg’s character and they . . . believe if there is one prisoner
who would make it in society, without problems, it would be Greg Lawrence.
At Lawrence’s initial parole hearing in 1985, the
interviewing board member wrote that she was
“leaning favorably [toward parole] at 10 years.” In
1988, another board
member made a favorable recommendation
but the majority had
no interest. Lawrence
was interviewed again
in 1994 and 1999,
and turned down for
parole each time. In
March 2004, the
board did not even
meet with Lawrence.
It simply reviewed his
Gregory Lawrence
file and sent him another “no interest”
notice.

Robert Schraw
Robert “Rick” Schraw was raised by his mother
and step-father with four other children in a working class family. He dropped out of school in 10th
grade “because all my friends were dropping out,”
and took a job as a dishwasher. He then joined
the Marine Corps but received a medical discharge
after a year. He became engaged to be married,
was expecting a baby, and got a job at Universal
Steel in Kokomo.
Schraw said he was “in a daze” on the trip to Lansing, but kept telling Lawrence and his sister that
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

he didn’t want to be involved in any bank robbery.
A subsequent psychological assessment of him said,
“[he] experiences
himself as
weak and
childlike . ..
His desire
for acceptance and
his fear of
being seen
as passive
Robert Schraw and his father
and unmasculine went into his decision to go along [with
Bellah’s plan].”
In prison, Schraw lived in the honor block at the
Michigan Reformatory for four years while working in the laundry, where he progressed to foreman. In 1983, his supervisor wrote:
[Schraw is] steady, dependable and trustworthy. Has made a considerable change in his
outlook on life. If anyone deserves a break, I
would have to say Rick Schraw not only deserves it, but has earned it.

In 1984, the interviewing parole board member indicated that she thought Schraw’s was “a good ten
year case.” After Schraw’s second board interview
in 1987, the interviewing member recommended
writing the judge, the first step to a public hearing.
Schraw got two other votes, but the majority of the
board was not willing to proceed. Four years later,
the same board member wrote:
I supported writing Judge last time, and feel he
is even a better case now. Set for Exec ASAP.
In 1992, the board began processing Schraw for a
public hearing. In the meantime, the old board
was replaced. Schraw was interviewed again and
some new members also expressed interest in proceeding. However, in June 1993 he received a fiveyear continuance. Schraw was interviewed again
in May 1998 and 2003. Although the board took
nearly a year to decide each time, the result was the
same.
Both Lawrence and Schraw have strong support
from family members who are ready to assist them
in adjusting to the free world. Their next scheduled reviews are in 2008 for Schraw and 2009 for
Lawrence, when they will have spent more than 32
years in prison.

The following year Schraw earned his GED and
enrolled in college classes for the 1984 summer
term. The staff member who wrote his initial lifer
report concluded:
I am of the opinion that, when Mr. Schraw is
released, he will become a positive, productive
member of society. We urge Mr. Schraw to continue his positive adjustment and behavior if
he is to be released.
Thereafter, Schraw always held a job. When he
worked in the garment factory for 10 years, he received regular promotions. His supervisor praised
his honesty, his work ethic and leadership.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

43

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Ross S. Hayes, 140420
Parole eligible since 1984

Hayes pled guilty to second degree murder, believing that with a parolable life sentence he could be
released after 10 years.

Age 16 at the time he killed an elderly woman during
a burglary, Hayes now counts the victim’s nephew
among his strongest supporters.

In prison, Hayes earned his GED and two associates degrees. He completed group therapy and
substance abuse treatment. His work and living
unit reports are excellent.

In 1974, Ross Hayes was an upcoming basketball
star and a marginal ninth grade student at Ottawa
Hills High School. While under the influence of
LSD, marijuana, and alcohol, Hayes, age 16, and
his 14-year-old cousin entered the Grand Rapids
home of 89-year-old Katherine Thomas, looking
for cash. When Thomas surprised them by returning home during the burglary, Hayes stabbed her
once in the chest with a kitchen knife, killing her.
He was arrested the next day.
Although Hayes had twice been referred to the juvenile court for breaking and entering, neither incident had resulted in a formal finding of guilt. As
a result, he had never participated in any programs
in the juvenile system – then one of the considerations for a juvenile waiver. The examining psychologist stated:
He has the mentality of an adolescent and he
has the emotional disturbance of an adolescent.
This young man is in need of a psychological
treatment program and my recommendation
would be that he receive treatment in the Pine
Rest Adolescent Unit.
Nevertheless, the probate judge waived Hayes to
adult court partly because “the time [needed for]
treatment may well exceed the relatively short period remaining for juvenile jurisdiction.” He called
his decision to have Hayes stand trial as an adult
“the most difficult one in some seven years on the
bench,” but said he was confident that the circuit
judge would handle the case “with fairness, equity,
mercy and justice.” On the advice of his attorney,

44

In 1988, Hayes and another prisoner, Delmar
Quezada, made a videotape in which they talk directly to young people about the consequences of
criminal behavior. The video has been used in
schools and juvenile facilities in several states.
Hayes became
a committed
Christian in
1989. In 1998
he married
Shirley Wright.
Since 1981, parole
board
members who
interviewed
Hayes have
Ross Hayes, right, and Dale Daverman.
noted his positive attitude, his many accomplishments, his commitment to at-risk youth, and the support he has
from staff, volunteers and the community. In a
1987 report to the board, his treatment team supervisor wrote:
[I am] very favorably impressed with the degree
of [Hayes’] personal growth…and it would seem
that now is the optimum time to release.
However, the interviewing board member said: “no
interest now, but maybe next time.” Positive recommendations from interviews in subsequent
years and numerous letters of support still resulted
in routine “no interest” notices.
Meanwhile, Dale Daverman, Katherine Thomas’
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

nephew, was surprised to learn through a family
friend that Hayes was still in prison and began
corresponding with him. Following a three-hour
visit with Hayes in the spring of 2001, he wrote
to the parole board chair:
I am absolutely convinced that Ross Hayes is
sincere and has remorse for what he did . . . my
father, brother and I feel Ross has paid his debt
to society.
Daverman envisions a partnership in ministry with
Hayes and has advocated strongly for his release.
In 2001, after meeting with Daverman, Kent
County Prosecutor William Forsyth wrote to parole board chair Stephen Marschke:
During my 27 years as a prosecutor, I have never
[before] been asked to help facilitate the release
of a convicted murderer by the family of the victim.
He continued that after reviewing the facts of the
crime and Hayes’ prison record:
I must confess . . . I am surprised that the Board
has not taken interest in a potential release.
Forsyth concluded by urging the parole board to
interview Hayes before his routinely scheduled interview in 2004.
Marschke replied:
After a careful review of Mr. Hayes’ file, and
your correspondence . . . I do not find any
compelling information that would cause me
to order another review at this time. Mr. Hayes
will next be reviewed in May 2004.
On July 8, 2004, parole board member Margie
McNutt interviewed Hayes at length. Dale
Daverman traveled from his home in Gallup, New
Mexico to be there. Hayes, who has now served 30
years, is awaiting the board’s decision.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Michelle Bazzetta-Southers,
205347
Parole eligible since 1998
Although her sentencing judge wanted to change her
life term so that Bazzetta could earn her release, the
appellate courts would not permit it.
Joseph Bazzetta hated his stepmother, Helen
Bazzetta, so much that in August 1983 he strangled
her to death in his home. Her body was not discovered until nearly five years later in a wooded
area in Oakland County. Joseph and his wife,
Michelle, were arrested and tried for first-degree
murder.
Michelle Bazzetta, who was not yet married to Joseph at the time of the killing, maintains that she
was awakened by Helen’s screams and that her only
role was to help dispose of the body. She says she
never went to authorities because she feared Joseph,
who frequently beat her, and because he had convinced her that she would also be charged with murder. At trial, the defense submitted evidence that
Joseph Bazzetta had abused Michelle, but did not
call an expert on battered women’s syndrome to
explain the impact such abuse can have. The prosecution theorized that if she were not guilty herself, she would have come forward. Joseph was
found guilty but mentally ill and sentenced to life
without parole. The jury found Michelle guilty of
second-degree murder.
By the time Bazzetta was sentenced in November
1989, judges knew that perceptions of parolable
life terms varied widely. Faced with numerous requests for both leniency and harsh punishment,
Judge Gene Schnelz was extremely ambivalent
about Bazzetta and struggled to determine the appropriate sentence. He expressed the belief that
Bazzetta had willingly participated in the murder

45

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

but that she also had the “potential to do good.”
After acknowledging that most people sentenced
for second-degree murder receive minimum terms
of about 20 years, he concluded:
I, therefore, feel that the fairest sentence under
the circumstances, to allow sufficient time to
elapse to determine whether you, in fact, are
capable of rehabilitation and are not a danger
to society, would be a sentence of life.
He indicated that Bazzetta could earn release by
doing well in prison.

gist Nels Thompson, who facilitated the group,
wrote of her:
Ms. Bazzetta-Southers has used her time of incarceration very wisely. She is no longer a victim, takes responsibility for her behavior and
actively helps other women in her environment
to realize their own potential . . . It is my professional opinion that Michelle Bazzetta-Southers is not a threat to society. She would be an
asset. If she were released from incarceration, I
believe her prognosis is excellent and that she
would remain free of future toxic relationships.

Bazzetta began by passing the GED exam while still
in jail. In prison, she obtained an associate’s degree
and a bachelor’s degree with high honors. She is
currently studying for a master’s degree at her own
expense. College instructors have found her to be
passionate about learning, assertive yet tolerant and
a dynamic speaker.

She and Joseph divorced. She married James
Southers in 1999.

Since 1994, Bazzetta has been employed as a peer
educator for HIV/AIDS/hepatitis prevention and
treatment, working with newly-arrived women prisoners. Bazzetta
mentors youthful
offenders and received a certificate
for outstanding
achievement as a
prisoner representative on the
Warden’s Forum.

At the monthly National Lifer Association
meetings, which I sponsor, it is clearly evident
that Michelle is respected by the women at Scott.
The inmates and staff alike . . . depend on
Michelle for her mature perspective on life and
her willingness to help others who are in need
of advice, a pep talk, or simply someone who
will listen to their grievances.

Bazzetta studied
the dynamics of
Michelle Bazzetta-Southers
Battered Women’s
Syndrome and actively participated in group
therapy for victims of domestic abuse. Psycholo-

46

Bazzetta regularly participates in religious services
and has nurtured a deeply spiritual outlook. Staff
and prisoners view her as a leader. Volunteer Isabell
Joy Yingling writes:

When Bazzetta first became eligible for parole in
1998, the board continued her for five years. In
2001, she returned to the trial court to seek a resentencing. She argued that the current board’s
“life means life” policy subverts the intention of
the judge, who never meant for her to die in prison
if she showed evidence of rehabilitation.
Judge Schnelz agreed that the revised policy “is not
what I understood at the time.” To avoid injustice, he decided to resentence Bazzetta to the average indeterminate sentence for second-degree mur-

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

der – a minimum of about 20 years, which, with
all available disciplinary credits, she could serve in
about 17.
The prosecution appealed. In 2003, the Court of
Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed the trial court’s
ruling and reinstated Bazzetta’s life sentence. The
majority found that there had been no misconception of law or frustrated intent because Judge
Schnelz had been aware that although legally eligible for parole, few lifers actually gained release.
It held that a trial judge cannot change his mind
about a sentence years later because the defendant
has established an impressive prison record. It also
held that Judge Schnelz had “improperly assumed
the role of the parole board and determined that
defendant had earned her parole.” The Michigan
Supreme Court declined to hear the case, ending
any hope that Bazzetta could obtain relief from state
courts.
Later in 2003, the parole board considered Bazzetta
again and continued her for another five years. Her
next routine review will be in 2008.

Gerald Lee Hessell, 150163
Parole eligible since 1986
Pressured at age 19 by the biological father he had just
met, Hessell assisted in crimes for which he has now
served far longer than the judge or victim intended.
Gerald Hessell remembers his childhood as “a ball
of confusion.” The man his mother married when
she was a teenager was involved in drugs and alcohol. He was the only father Hessell knew. When
Hessell was 13, this man was institutionalized. His
mother obtained a divorce and remarried someone

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

barely older than Hessell himself. Hessell dropped
out of school at 15. By the age of 18, he was out of
work, married and on welfare. His only criminal
conviction, however, was for breaking into an abandoned gas station, for which he received two years
probation.
It was then that Hessell met Arthur Burgess, his
biological father. Burgess, who drove a Cadillac
and carried a pocketful of cash, made a strong impression on
Hessell.
Burgess had
served 13
years for
murder and
was awaiting
trial
for
three more
murders of
which he
was later
Gerald Hessell, his mother (left) and
convicted.
grandmother.
About four months after they met, Burgess told
Hessell that Robert Johnson, a marijuana dealer
they both knew, was a police informant who might
implicate Burgess in the pending murder charges
and that “we have to get rid of him.” Hessell resisted getting involved, but ultimately gave in to
pressure from Burgess, “partly out of some crazed
desire to be accepted, but moreso out of fear.”
In early April 1976, Hessell, Burgess and Scott
Croyden drove to Johnson’s apartment, intending
to kill him, but no one was home. A week later
they went there again, on the pretense of buying
drugs. They lured Johnson into a car where Hessell
and Croyden robbed him of marijuana and money.
Burgess then ordered Hessell to drive away.
When Johnson tried to jump out of the car, Bur-

47

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

gess stabbed him twice. Johnson fell out, got up
and ran, but Burgess pursued him, shot him several
times, and left him for dead. Johnson survived the
attack. Burgess then said someone had to go back
and kill Johnson’s girlfriend, Theresa Martell, because she was a potential witness. There are conflicting accounts as to whether Burgess or Croyden
actually killed Martell, but no one says it was Hessell.
Croyden testified against his co-defendants and was
sentenced to 8–15 years for armed robbery; he was
released in 1985. Burgess was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving life without parole.
Hessell pled guilty to armed robbery and assault with
intent to murder; he pled no contest to second-degree murder. Hessell’s attorney bargained for three
concurrent life sentences, telling Hessell that, with
a good prison record, he could be released in 12
years. In negotiating the plea, the prosecutor and
judge consulted Robert Johnson. They advised
Johnson that, with three concurrent life sentences,
Hessell would likely serve no more than 15 years.
The judge explained that the plea was proposed because Hessell was a young man with the potential
for rehabilitation. Johnson agreed that 10-15 years
was sufficient punishment since Hessell was not the
aggressor in the attack on him and he believed
Hessell acted out of fear of Burgess.
In prison, Hessell participated in three years of group
and six months of individual therapy. Since the early
1980s, staff reports painted a portrait of an insecure
young man who grew into an insightful, self-confident adult. One corrections officer observed in
1982:

standing in his interactions with staff and other
prisoners . . . I cannot see how continuing his
incarceration would benefit him or anyone else.
Psychologists concur. A group therapy termination report from 1989 says:
Hessell has the ability to lead a constructive and
law-abiding existence upon release.
In 1991, a therapist concluded:
Hessell has obtained the maximum benefit from
incarceration.
Hessell earned an associate’s degree and is certified as a dental lab technician, a master gardener,
an addiction counselor and a legal assistant. He
has received only seven misconducts. He has maintained close ties with family, friends and clergy.
Notably, Robert Johnson has offered to appear
with Hessell at his next parole interview.
After Hessell’s hearing in 1987, shortly after becoming eligible for release, board chair William
Hudson wrote:
He continues to do an excellent job. The board
has no interest at this time. Guideline score is
14. Not a bad number.
Since then, however, the board has shown no interest. In 2003, it continued Hessell’s incarceration until 2008, without even seeing him. He will
then be 51 years old and will have served 32 years.

Over the last 3½ years, he has matured immensely. Mr. Hessell’s accomplishments should
merit some type of sentence leniency.
Years later, another officer said:
Hessell is quiet, intelligent, thoughtful and out-

48

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Jose Daniel Mares, 135943
Parole eligible since 1982

Convicted at 18 of a murder he committed while
drinking, Mares did so well in prison the parole board
considered releasing him after 13 years. But Mares got
drunk and briefly walked away from a prison camp
in 1985 and the board has never shown interest again.
Jose Mares is the fourth of nine children born to a
migrant family in Texas. Mares’ father, an alcoholic,
came and went. In his teen years, Mares began
drinking excessively and often could not remember later what he had done while drunk. Even so,
his only encounter with police was for one speeding ticket, until his conviction of second-degree
murder at the age of 18.
At the time of his arrest, Mares worked the night
shift at a tool and die company and attended high
school in the mornings.
Mares started drinking early in the morning on Oct.
28, 1972. That night, he and his cousin, Domingo
Ramirez, went to a bar in Holland where they met
80-year old Jessie Smith, who was also drinking
heavily. The teens agreed to give Smith a ride home
to drop off six-packs for his Sunday drinking.
Instead of returning to the bar as planned, Mares
and Ramirez took Smith into the country to steal
his money. After the larceny, they headed back into
town, but the car slid into a ditch. Ramirez hitched
a ride to get a wrecker. While he was gone, Smith
got out of the car and insisted on walking home.
Mares tried to stop him, but Smith would not return to the car. When Mares pushed Smith into a
ditch to avoid being hit by an oncoming car, Smith
started screaming and yelling. Mares panicked and
struck Smith several times with a tree branch to

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

quiet him. Mares claimed no intent to kill, but
Smith died from the blows.
The pre-sentence investigator wrote that Mares
should finish high school and learn a trade to prepare for his return to the community. The judge
imposed a parolable life sentence, recommending a pre-parole hearing at the end of seven years.
When Mares arrived at prison he tested “borderline defective” in
intelligence with a
fourth-grade overall level of academic
achievement. He
was judged to be
immature
and
poorly socialized;
he admitted to
chronic alcoholism.
In spite of this
bleak assessment,
Mares completed
his GED in 1976,
Jose Mares
an associate’s degree
in arts and sciences in 1979, and earned 96 credits towards a bachelor’s degree in community service. He also worked at a variety of prison jobs
and developed several marketable skills.
A lifer review report in 1983 stated that Mares
was “making great strides” in preparing himself
to return to society. In 1984, a work supervisor
wrote:
I was able to see him slowly shine and stand
out from the crowd. I believe he has experienced ‘rehabilitation’ far beyond the expectations of Corrections.
MDOC staff consistently characterize him as responsible, mature, sincere and hardworking.

49

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

In September 1984, when he was 30 years old,
Mares was moved to Camp Lehman at the request
of the parole board. This was often done as a step
toward release. He worked on a camp crew and received excellent reports. At that time, alcohol was
available in the camp and eventually Mares gave in
to drinking. One day in June 1985, already intoxicated, he went into the woods to pick up alcohol
left there for the prisoners and got lost. He was
gone until the next day when he came out of the
woods and turned himself in to state police in
Houghton Lake.
The parole board saw Mares again in November
1985, five months after the walk-away. Following
the interview, board member Thomas Patten wrote:
Had chance, blew it – no interest now.
Since then, Mares has continued to work steadily
and further his education. Teachers competed to
hire him as a bi-lingual tutor. For several years he
was a line foreman for prison industries where his
supervisor wrote that he was a competent and conscientious worker. He has had no incidents of substance abuse since 1988. Mares has maintained
contact with family members and has support in
the religious community outside prison. He married Sara Harris in 1999.
The parole board saw Mares again in 1993 and 1998
and issued a “no interest” notice each time. In the
summer of 2003, the parole board reviewed Mares’
file. Then, without even an interview, it continued
him for another five years. His next scheduled review is in 2008, when he will be 54.

50

Anthony Johnson, 125208
Parole eligible since 1986

Despite a stack of reference letters from prison staff attesting to his character and accomplishments, the parole board does not consider Johnson safe to release.
Anthony Johnson’s early days in Benton Harbor
were hardly promising. One of seven sons, after his
parents separated Johnson spent most of his time
with his father. At age 11, he was placed on probation by the juvenile
court for breaking and
entering and carrying
a concealed weapon.
While on probation
he faced more charges
for burglary, possession of stolen property
and felonious assault.
At age 13, he was sent
to Boys Training
School for 15 months.
Anthony Johnson
A week after his 16th
birthday, Johnson knocked down an elderly woman
and took her purse. He was tried as an adult and
sentenced to 2-10 years in prison.
When he was released on parole, Johnson married,
fathered two children and worked at a factory. On
April 23, 1973, when he was 19, he, his youngest
brother, a cousin and a friend of theirs were out
riding around and drinking wine. According to
Johnson, when they ran out of money they attempted to pawn a shotgun. The owner of a pool
hall wouldn’t take it, so they went across the street
to a neighborhood grocery store. Johnson had
known the owner, 55-year-old Sam Baum, for years
and knew that Baum took items in pawn. Johnson,

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

his brother and cousin entered the store. Johnson
says he was holding the gun when it accidentally
discharged, killing Baum with one shot.
There was not enough evidence to prosecute until
1977, when the friend, who had been waiting in
the car, was granted immunity in exchange for his
testimony. Although the prosecution theory was
felony-murder, there was no evidence of robbery
and all three defendants were convicted of seconddegree murder.
When Johnson started serving his sentence he took
classes in drafting and blueprint reading. In the
early 1980s he began working in food service. He
obtained his GED in 1982, then began taking every course available related to institutional food service management, nutrition, the preparation of special diets and the teaching of food service skills. He
completed the State of Michigan’s food service management certification program in 1984, was certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as an apprentice chef, completed a University of Florida independent study course for dietetic assistants in
1985 and received his associate’s degree in 1987.
Since the late 1980s, Johnson’s work with the dieticians and food service supervisors at several different prisons, his instruction of other prisoners in food
technology and his willingness to volunteer to prepare food for special activities have garnered him
more than two dozen letters of support from staff.
In 1988, Warden Emmett Baylor took the unusual
step of personally forwarding a packet of letters to
the parole board chair.
MDOC staff praise not only Johnson’s knowledge
and skills, but also his character.
Mr. Johnson has accepted the responsibility of
assisting me in completely reorganizing our dietary department. He has been Head Diet Cook

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

since April of 1982, . . . a position which was
created solely due to his dietary expertise…He
has worked on much of our improvements on
his own time…
—Donn Newhouse, Food Service
Director, 1984.
. . . I was stunned by his perseverance…[and]
personal growth . . . I have seen few people handle
frustration and adversity as maturely.
— Prof. Raymond Ventre, Northern
Michigan University, 1988
His talents and willingness have made him an
exceptional role model. His integrity and honesty have led students and staff at E.C. Brooks
Correctional Facility to have outstanding respect
for him.
— John Brewer, Food Technology
Instructor, 1993
He completely organized the Therapeutic Diet
line, trained Diet Cooks, and used his vast
knowledge to make our Therapeutic Diet line
the best one in the state.
— Barbara Price, Assistant Food Service
Director, 1997
Equally impressive is this 1988 evaluation by psychologist Charles Harper:
Mr. Johnson has been in group therapy for the
past year. During that time his therapist reports
that he has literally carried the group . . . He is
especially capable of abstract thinking, conscientious and dominated by a sense of duty. He is
attentive to others and can be relied on to complete assigned tasks. He seems to have developed

51

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

the ability to be self-reliant and realistic . . . It
is doubtful that further incarceration would
serve any rehabilitative purpose for Mr. Johnson
or society.
Despite these assessments from people who know
him well, and despite the fact that his last misconduct citation was in 1982, the parole board has
shown little interest in Johnson. In 1993, thenboard chair Stephen Marschke noted that he could
support parole at the next interview if Johnson’s
behavior remained positive, but the 1998 and 2003
interviews resulted in routine “no interest” notices.
Johnson is next scheduled for review in May 2008,
when he will be age 55 and have served 32 years.

Derek Lee Foster, 156952
Parole eligible since 1989
Lavish praise from staff for his tutoring and counseling efforts with younger prisoners and a near-perfect
institutional record for 25 year have not won Foster
any attention from the parole board
Derek Foster was the older of two sons in a working-class Detroit family. He left school in the 10th
grade, then held several factory jobs. He married
at age 20; he and his wife separated after having
one child. He had no juvenile court history, no
adult convictions and no substance abuse problem.
Despite this unremarkable history, in December
1978, when Foster was 23, he and an 18-year-old
co-defendant decided to rob a gas station. Foster
held a gun on the woman attendant. When she
struggled with him, he shot and killed her.
Foster explains that he had lost a new job after only

52

one week and wanted to buy Christmas presents
for his daughters.
“I had family I
could
have
turned to, but my
messed up sense
of pride would
not allow it. I
hate the decision
I made,” he wrote
in a letter discussing the offense.
Foster and his codefendant both
pled guilty to second-degree murder. The co-defendant received a Derek Foster and granddaughter
15 to 25 year sentence and was paroled after serving about 7½.
Foster has focused his prison time on academic and
counseling activities geared particularly at younger
prisoners. He obtained his GED the year after he
entered prison. By 1985, he had completed an
associate’s and a bachelor’s degree.
For the last 14 years, Foster has been at Carson City
Correctional Facility where he tutors in the school
program during the day and volunteers as a literacy
tutor during evenings and weekends. Teachers have
strongly praised his patience and persistence in
working with low-level learners. One wrote in
1995:
He has been a great asset to our classroom and
has made remarkable progress in reading with
many of our ‘last chance’ adult students. These
special talents and his willingness to work hard
with these students have made him a special person in our school.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Another teacher, who described Foster as “consistently helpful, calm and knowledgeable” wrote in
1997:

I have no objection to the parole board exercising any discretion they might wish to use to
reward your excellent conduct.

I have observed Mr. Foster’s patience with irritable, sluggish students — especially young students who are lacking motivation. Mr. Foster
has been a positive model for these young students to look up to and to imitate.

A psychological evaluation requested by the parole
board in 1997 concluded:

A third wrote in 2002:

. . . this individual is highly motivated to readjust in society and given his increased education and demonstrated commitment to be productive, prognosis for his re-adjustment in the
community would be above average.

My students and the other students here at
[Carson City] are fortunate to have such a role
model, whose conduct, manner and educational
knowledge are all exemplary . . . When released
from prison, he should have a bright professional
future.

Despite Foster’s record, the parole board has shown
no interest in releasing him. When, in 1993, Foster sought guidance from the board about how he
could earn parole, then chairperson Gary Gabry
replied:

The school principal has written that Foster “would
make an excellent elementary school teacher or
could have a career in social work.” Foster would
like to earn a master’s degree in special education.

The only thing a lifer can do is establish a record
of stable and mature behavior, clear of misconduct, and participate in the institutional programming and activities which are available.

Since 1993, Foster has helped to facilitate group
counseling sessions in his housing unit. The staff
member responsible for supervising these sessions
recently wrote of him:

Although Foster continues to exceed this standard,
the board continues to have no interest. Foster received 5-year rejections after interviews in 1997 and
2002. He will be considered again in 2007, when
he will be 52 years old and have served 29 years.

He has the ability to relate and communicate
with many different types of personalities . . .
He appears to have made insightful changes in
his own life and wishes to relate them to a primarily younger generation. He displays excellent leadership qualities in a group setting without appearing to dominate or limit group involvement. His topics of discussion are rooted
in the core values of a moral society.
Foster has a grid score of 14 years. He has not
received a misconduct citation since 1981. His sentencing judge, Hon. Dalton Roberson, wrote in
1990:

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Robert Middleton

David Closser, 137666
Parole eligible since 1986
Having paid dearly for foolish choices made many years
ago, Closser is now a skilled draftsman and master gardener, quietly doing his time.
David Closser says he had a favorable home life and
good parents but that his “restlessness” would get
the better of him. According to a psychological re-

53

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

port, as an adolescent he spent his energies “defying authority and compulsively seeking independence.” At age 14, he was sent to Boys’ Republic
for running away from home. At 15, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and was sent
to Boys’ Training School in Lansing. When he was
17, he was convicted of breaking and entering and
unlawful use of an auto and sent to prison for 2-5
years, where he was housed at the Ionia Reformatory.
On May 31, 1976, Closser was transferred to the
minimum security dormitory, but hated the
crowded conditions there.
The next day he walked
away.
After walking for hours,
Closser decided he
needed a vehicle. He
knocked on the door of
the Ernest Allen residence. When no one answered, he broke a window to enter. His intent
was to look for keys to the
car he saw parked in the
driveway.

A high-speed chase and two vehicle exchanges followed. The Allen car skidded off the road on a
curve and became stuck in a freshly plowed field.
The police disabled the next car by shooting out its
tires. Closser, who had traded his hostage for a third
car, was arrested when he lost control of it, ending
up on the highway median and injuring his back.
Closser was placed in segregation for 12 months
while awaiting trial and sentencing. He received
two life sentences — for armed robbery and kidnapping. He said later:
I realized then I was going to have to change
my lifestyle or I was going to spend the rest of
my life in one of these cells.

David Closser at HOGs’
garden in Kinross

Unfortunately, Mr. Allen was home. Closser
knocked him down and demanded the car keys.
When told the car was not working, but that Mrs.
Allen would be home soon with another car, he
tied Allen up and waited. Searching the house, he
found rifles and ammunition. Two children arrived
home from school; then Mrs. Allen returned with
five more. At gunpoint, Closser had them tie each
other up.
When a young neighbor peered in the door and
saw the family tied up, she called 911. Police sur-

54

rounded the house before Closser could leave. He
then took the 17-year-old daughter hostage, threatening to kill her if the police tried to stop them.
They left in the family’s car with the daughter driving.

Despite his long history of incarceration, a psychologist judged that Closser had had “minimal treatment” for assaultive/impulse control issues. On his
own, he began to develop strategies to keep himself
out of trouble. Over the next 16 years, he had only
two misconducts, neither assaultive.
Closser also began using the “superior intelligence
and great potential” that the pre-sentence investigator noted in 1977. He became a certified mechanical draftsman and grew skilled in construction drafting. He applied his skills working for
prison industries, where he also trained other prisoners. He studied electronics and was a cable-TV
repairman for his facility. He was clerk to the education director at State Prison of Southern Michigan, worked at the facility’s radio station and completed coursework and on-the-job training for an
FCC license.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

In 1989, an interviewing psychologist found
Closser to be patient, thoughtful and able to anticipate realistic consequences for his behavior.
Closser told him:
I try to distance myself from the negative aspects of the prison environment. This is not
the lifestyle I want.
In 1993 he was finally placed in a six-month program of group therapy for impulse control which
he continued voluntarily for another six months.
At the end of a year, the therapist judged that he
Closser had achieved “maximum benefit” from the
program.
In 2000, Closser entered the horticulture program
at Kinross Correctional Facility. He is now a Michigan Certified Nurseryman and has completed the
Advanced Master Gardener program through MSU.
He currently spends his time tutoring in the horticulture program and chairing the Horticulture
Organic Gardeners (H.O.G.s), a prisoner organization that provides flowers and produce to charitable organizations in the community.
By 1988 the parole board expressed interest in paroling Closser. The interviewing member wrote:
A different person than originally arrived in
the system. I would be willing to start the process under the lifer law.
Closser was still waiting for his public hearing to
be scheduled when the board was reconstituted in
1992.
After interviewing him, the new board reversed the
prior decision and continued Closser for five more
years. A 1998 interview had the same result. In
2003, the board only reviewed his file before sending another five-year continuance. His next review
is scheduled for 2008, when he will be 52 and will
have served 32 years.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Philandius Ford, 113879
Parole eligible since 1983
Although he was trusted by prison staff to spend years
working in the community, often unsupervised, at age
56 the parole board still considers Ford too big a risk to
release because of his prior record.
Philandius “Phil” Ford has traveled far from his
troubled youth. He was a behavioral problem in
school as early as second grade. Beginning at eight
years old, when his parents couldn’t handle him, he
was placed in a series of foster homes. At age 14 he
was sent to Boys’ Training School in Lansing. At
17, Ford was sent to prison for larceny from a motor vehicle; he had just turned 20 when he was paroled in December 1967.
Over the next three
years Ford was arrested
many times for minor
crimes and ordinance
violations. When he
was 23, he was sent to
prison a second time
for carrying a knife and
receiving stolen property. He was released
on parole in March
1973.

Philandius Ford

Two months later Ford was charged with felonymurder for a killing at a drug house in Detroit. Although the prosecution theory was that a robbery
occurred, the jury found none and convicted Ford
of second-degree murder.
Ford says he began to feel himself change when he
entered prison for the third time. He was soon
housed in the honor block at the Ionia Reformatory
where he remained for eight years. During that time

55

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

he received excellent work reports and had only
one misconduct citation.
According to Ford’s 1982 Lifer Review Report:
Numerous prison staff believe that Phil Ford
has come a long way and is doing a good job
preparing himself for his release.
His 1983 report said:
Ford is a quiet individual that not only causes
no problems, but helps maintain order in others through personal influence. He is a stable,
mature person who takes great pride in his
work.
And in 1985, auto shop instructor Bill Wieczorek
wrote:
In [Phil Ford’s] case “rehabilitation” has taken
place. To delay his release any longer . . . would
serve no purpose other than to punish him. He
has learned from his past mistakes and is now
ready to start a new life.
Ford was transferred to minimum custody in 1983.
Under then-prevailing MDOC policy, prisoners
who proved themselves trustworthy were given
positions of responsibility and allowed to work in
the community. Ford served as foreman of the
groundskeeping crew and supervised a dozen other
prisoners. Head Groundskeeper Richard Muscott
wrote:

assignments in the community. He was responsible
for snowplowing around two prison facilities and
was sometimes out on the job all night, unsupervised. He was foreman of a prisoner crew at the
Ionia Free Fair for three summers.
At his request, Ford was transferred to the camp program in 1986. He was a driver at Camp Ojibway
— transporting prisoners to facilities around the
state and making supply runs for the camp. He was
then sent to Camp Waterloo. While there he worked
at St. Louis Center and St. Joseph Hall in Chelsea,
doing maintenance and groundskeeping. He also
worked for a year on a major building project for
Rampy Construction Company. In 1986 and 1987
Ford went home on unescorted furloughs — for
the funerals of his brother and mother. After almost six years in minimum custody, he was sent back
to a secure prison in 1989 because a departmental
policy change removed all lifers from community
status.
Although he has lost several close family members,
including his first wife who died of cancer in 1990,
Ford has maintained family ties. He has been married to Nancy Dillard since 1992.

He is as valuable to this assignment as another
fulltime employee would be, and will be next
to impossible to replace with an inmate that
has his capability. During my 25 years with
the Department of Corrections I have had several thousand inmates working under my direct supervision and I would rate this man in
the top five . . .

Ford had four parole interviews during the ‘80s.
Each time the interviewing board member was impressed with his maturity, sincerity, and accomplishments, but the full board never took action to release him. In 1991, although the board member
who saw him found “no indication of the lifestyle
that brought him to prison,” the full board still decided it had “no interest” in paroling him. It recommended psychotherapy “for the experience.” In
1992, after ten sessions, Psychologist James Dickson
noted that Ford’s reaction to family deaths showed,
“a great deal of maturity and behavioral control.”
Dickson continued:

Ford also drove inmate crews to and from their work

He has assumed a great deal of responsibility

56

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

during his incarceration and has successfully
met it . . . Mr. Ford acts as a healthy role model
for other inmates to follow, intervenes in disputes at his discretion, and prides himself on
maintaining a cool head. Other inmates reportedly seek him out for advice, which is to
his credit.

County home. He hit and choked Mrs. Jahner, leaving her unconscious, but did not succeed in killing
her. Catlett, who had been out of prison only a
month and had a heavy heroin habit to feed, had
been arrested for an unrelated armed robbery when
evidence was found linking him to the Jahner assault.

In 1993, after serving 20 years, Ford wrote then
parole board chair Gary Gabry asking what he
could do to improve his chances for parole. Gabry
answered:

In exchange for a plea to felonious assault, which
netted him a sentence of 2 2/3 - 4 years, Catlett
testified that Monica Jahner had paid him $5,000
to kill her stepmother. Jahner maintains that it was
her father who wanted Sandra Jahner dead and that
her only role had been to convey money at her father’s
direction. Jahner’s father moved to the Bahamas
and has never been charged.

The Board’s concern is your lengthy criminal
history and this will continue to be of concern
every time your case is reviewed. About the
only thing you can do is maintain a positive
institutional record.
Ford did as advised, but the parole board continued him again after a 1997 interview. In 2002 it
sent him a “no interest” notice after simply reviewing his file. He is scheduled to be considered again
in 2007 when he will be 60 years old.

Monica Ann Jahner, 151946
Parole eligible since 1989
A Supreme Court declaration that Jahner’s life sentence is in fact parolable has made no practical difference in how the parole board treats her.
Monica Ann Jahner was only 22 years old, but she
had already spent years helping her father run his
two drapery shops — one in Detroit and one in
Howell — when she was arrested for conspiring to
murder her step-mother. On Jan. 18, 1977, Roy
Catlett attacked Sandra Jahner in her Livingston

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Jahner was
convicted of
conspiracy to
murder and
assault with
intent
to
commit murder. Her convictions were
reversed on
appeal but
Monica Jahner and her mother
she was convicted again at a retrial. Jahner, who has no prior
criminal record, adult or juvenile, was free on bond
without incident for 11 months before her first trial
and 14 months before her second trial.
Jahner received a 10-20 year term for the assault,
which she completed in January 1993. The law
required the court to impose a life sentence for the
conspiracy conviction. Jahner and three other prisoners, also convicted of conspiracy to murder, petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court to determine
whether their life sentences, although mandatory,
were nonetheless parolable. In 1989, the Court held

57

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

that unlike convictions for first-degree murder, those
for conspiracy are subject to the 10-year parole provisions of the Lifer Law. Noting that the victim
was not killed in any of the cases, the Court declined
to eliminate the parole board’s opportunity to exercise discretion. Two of the defendants were paroled
in 1995; both had served about 20 years. Like Jahner,
the fourth defendant, Ricky L. Jones, who has now
served 23 years, is still incarcerated.
Jahner has compiled an impressive record in prison
and is well regarded by administrators and staff. She
earned her bachelor’s degree and a paralegal certificate, completed two years of psychotherapy in the
early 1990s and received a perfect termination report from the Assaultive Offender Program in 2002.
She was active in coordinating prisoner projects that
served others — a visitation program for prisoners
and their children, a books on tape program for the
learning disabled and a videotape series addressed
to juvenile offenders.
In 1991, Warden Carol Howes wrote a letter on
Jahner’s behalf to the parole board chair that concluded:
Further incarceration of Ms. Jahner would serve
no meaningful purpose other than to punish.
She has already involved herself in every institutional program available to her. She works
well with the administration and does not appear to be any threat to the public. Her continued incarceration is a significant burden to taxpayers. The longer her incarceration the more
difficult it will be for her to begin a new life on
the outside.
Jahner was considered by the full board that year.
Although two members indicated they could approve release at 18 years, the board has never chosen to exercise the discretion the Supreme Court
accorded it. As a result of her last five-year continu-

58

ance, Jahner will next be considered in 2006, when
she will be 52 years old and will have served 27
years.

Robert Weisenauer, 157085
Parole eligible since 1989
Despite every possible positive indicator, the support
of his sentencing judge and interest from the old parole board, the new board has continued Weisenauer
until 2008 for an offense that would not bring a life
sentence today.
Robert Weisenauer’s father died when he was seven.
Weisenauer began drinking and taking barbiturates
at the age of 12 and went on to develop a serious
substance abuse history. He quit school after the
ninth grade, spent some time in a juvenile detention facility for truancy and running away, and left
home for good at 16. Nonetheless, his only adult
criminal convictions were for malicious destruction
of property and disorderly conduct — both misdemeanors.
On December 4, 1977, when Weisenauer was 24,
he was at a motorcycle gang clubhouse in Flint
where more than 100 people were engaged in loud
partying. In the early morning hours, a 24-yearold woman was abducted from her car and brought
to the clubhouse. The victim was turned over to a
man named Cal who took her to a bedroom and
forced her into sexual activities with nine or ten
men over a six-hour period. The presentence report says: “After her initial contact with Cal, she
was directed to perform fellatio on a male that she
believes was . . . Robert Weisenauer.”

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Weisenauer insisted that he spent that night being
sick from two days of hard drinking and had no
involvement with the victim. He thought she might
have confused him with another club member who
strongly resembled
him. However, a jury
convicted Weisenauer
and four co-defendants based on the
victim’s identification.
Cal, the ringleader,
was never caught.
Before sentencing
Weisenauer to life in
prison, Judge Earl
Borradaile stated that,
given the chance, he Robert Weisenauer and
would impose on the granddaughters
main perpetrator a
sentence “much more severe than what I’m handing out today to these five.” In a letter written to
Weisenauer in November 2000, Judge Borradaile
said:
It seems quite clear that I did say that I was
giving you a life term but that unlike first degree murder, it would probably not last too many
years.
Weisenauer has used his time in prison effectively.
He obtained his GED, then trained as a welder.
He received excellent work reports on every job he
held. For the last several years he has been a volunteer mentor to young prisoners sentenced under
the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. He has received
only three misconducts and has numerous letters
in his file indicating that he gets along well with
both prisoners and staff. Memos from several officers written in 1988 characterize him as honest,
even-tempered and helpful to others.

and more than two in group psychotherapy. In
1982, psychologist Larry Thornton stated:
In all the time that he participated in group, I
never saw him act out what I would consider
inappropriate behavior under stressful situations. I personally have a strong admiration
for the way this resident was able to demonstrate a strong, friendly manner in a situation
which is demeaning at times.
Although Weisenauer did not become eligible for
parole until 1989, his grid score suggested that he
should serve only eight years. The parole board
member who interviewed him in 1984 noted: “He
presents quite positively.” After his 1989 interview, a majority of the board voted to proceed to
public hearing. Reports were prepared, but processing was never completed.
In 1992, psychologist Richard Carrill evaluated
Weisenauer at the parole board’s request. Mr.
Carrill concluded:
Mr. Weisenauer’s prognosis is very good at this
time. He should be able to be a productive
citizen if given the chance to go back to society.
In 1993, after the new board took over, Weisenauer
was again considered in executive session. The vote
was 7-3 against proceeding.
Weisenauer wrote to the board. Despite his actual
record and the court’s actual intent, he received
the following response:
When the Parole Board reviews a life sentence,
a number of factors are taken into consideration. They include the nature and circumstances of the offense, any prior criminal history, the prisoner’s risk factors for future assaultive behavior and property crimes, and the
prisoner’s institutional adjustment and pro-

Weisenauer spent more than six years attending AA
Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

59

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

gram involvement over the years. The fact that
the court could have imposed a sentence short
of life imprisonment is also a factor. Before
the Board could agree to proceed toward a public hearing, there must be a compelling argument to present to the court and to the public
that the life sentence should not be carried out.
In 1998, the board interviewed Weisenauer again
and again had “no interest.”
On February 4, 2003, Judge Borradaile wrote to
the parole board chairman:
When I sentenced Mr. Weisenauer, it was my
belief that review would be had in ten years
and if Mr. Weisenauer showed much progress,
he would likely get parole . . . While I realize
that the Parole Board is greatly concerned about
release of sex offenders, I believe that his activity in straightening himself out shows he would
not pose a great danger . . . I would hope that
you would let him personally appear before the
Parole Board and that your board would lean
toward leniency in considering parole.
Nonetheless, that year the board only reviewed
Weisenauer’s file. On March 17, 2003, it notified
Weisenauer that it had no interest in his case and
that he will be reviewed again in February 2008,
when he will have served 29 years. Under current
sentencing guidelines, his minimum sentence
would be between 9 and 15 years.

60

Kenneth Foster, 142187
Parole eligible since 1984
Foster has done everything possible to rehabilitate himself, but the sentencing judge’s expectation that this
would lead to parole has not come true
No one expected Kenneth Foster to still be in prison
after 30 years – least of all the judge who sentenced
him. Charged with two
counts of first-degree murder for the January 1974
shooting deaths of two
Detroit drug dealers, Foster was convicted of second-degree murder by a
jury. He was 22 years old
and had no prior record,
adult or juvenile. However, he had gotten involved in selling drugs and
Kenneth Foster
the killings occurred during the robbery of dealers he knew.
At his sentencing, Foster, who had dropped out in
the tenth grade, asked the court to recommend that
he be allowed to finish school. Judge Robert J.
Colombo replied:
I would like to see you finish up school, Mr.
Foster. While perhaps I think I’m going to be
here in ten years, too, if I am not I am making
a record here. I will follow your case and follow your progress and again, if you are ever recommended for parole, and you can be in ten
years, I will approve it . . . If you successfully
complete your education you can return to the
community as a responsible individual. I have
heard a lot of people say a lot of good things
about you. I appreciate that you have potential.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Foster lived up to his potential. He completed his
GED and an associate’s degree, then received his
bachelor’s degree in 1993. He participated in a wide
variety of prison programs, from group counseling
and substance abuse treatment to the NAACP,
Moorish Science Temple of America and Jaycees.
His work reports are excellent. While at the Michigan Reformatory, he worked his way up to inmate
supervisor of the garment factory cutting room. At
the Muskegon Correctional Facility he worked as a
dental clerk and chair side dental assistant. The
dentist praised Foster’s “ability and his attitude.”
The program coordinator for Muskegon Community College characterized Foster as a steady, dependable, hardworking student who showed substantial leadership ability. She also wrote:
Ken is a very sincere person, with an amiable
personality and wonderful sense of humor…I
believe that he will benefit the community
when he is released.
Several letters from corrections officers who supervised Foster in the 1990s describe him as someone
who regularly volunteers to help out, who communicates well with other prisoners and staff, and
who would be an asset to the free community. Foster has received only a dozen misconduct citations
in total, none since 1991.
In 1982, the MDOC calculated Foster’s grid term
at 14 years. Although three parole board members
showed interest in 1993, a majority was never willing to proceed to public hearing. Foster finally
turned to the courts, seeking a resentencing on the
rationale that the parole board’s policies were subverting the intent of his sentencing judge. In support of his motion, Foster submitted a letter written by Judge Colombo in July 2001 that stated in
part:

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

[N]ot only I, but the vast majority of trial judges
in the State of Michigan were aware that by
imposing life sentences rather than
[in]determinate sentences of minimum and
maximums, the Michigan Parole Board at that
time was able to parole defendants who had
made substantial progress toward rehabilitation
upon completion of a term of 10 years . . .
Unfortunately there has also been a huge change
in the position of the . . . Parole Board . . .
between my sentence and this date, and Mr.
Foster is caught in the middle of it . . . I would
never have sentenced Mr. Foster to a term of
more than two concurrent terms of 25 to 30
years . . . And in the year of 1975 that would
have meant with then applied good time he
would have served no more than 17 or so years
in prison.
Judge Colombo’s letter persuaded his successor in
office to grant Foster a resentencing. However, the
prosecutor appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision.
The parole board last reviewed Foster’s case in December 2003. It did not even afford him a personal interview. The next month he was hospitalized for diabetes. He will be considered again for
parole in 2008, when he will be 55 years old and
have served nearly 35 years in prison.

61

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Ruth Bullock, 195075
Parole eligible since 1998
Aging and ill, Bullock had hoped a Supreme Court
decision making her life sentence for drug possession
parolable would lead to release. But even after 16 years
the parole board never chose to act.
In February 1988, Ruth Bullock picked up Kenneth Hasson at the Lansing airport. He placed luggage in her trunk containing over 15 kilograms of cocaine. Although Bullock denied
knowledge of the drugs,
a Clinton County jury
convicted her of possessing more than 650
grams based on traces of
cocaine found in her
purse and glove compartment. She also had
several thousand dollars
Ruth Bullock
in cash. At the time, the
offense carried a mandatory penalty of life in prison without the possibility
of parole.
When she was arrested, Bullock was a 48-year-old
grandmother. She had been married for 23 years
and had worked for General Motors for 16. Her
prior record consisted of three misdemeanors for
drunkenness, gambling and driving on a suspended
license when she was 20.
In 1992, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an
opinion in Bullock’s case. The Court held that a
mandatory sentence of life without parole for possessing (as opposed to distributing) drugs violated
the state constitutional ban on cruel or unusual
punishment. Its solution was to make Bullock and

62

all other prisoners serving life sentences for possession eligible for parole after serving 10 years.
The parole board saw Bullock briefly in 1992, after
her sentence was changed, but she did not become
eligible for parole until July 1998. The board chose
not to release her then, notifying her instead that
she would be interviewed again in July 2003. Bullock described the experience:
When I was first seen by the Parole Board, the
lady told me that everything looks good for you
Ms. Bullock, within the next five years you
should be going home, try not to bring us no
tickets, and you should be going home. I sat
here and counted the days believing that I would
be going home in five years. All I could do was
wait. When they saw me the second time, I saw
no reason why I couldn’t go after my ten years…
They do not give you any reason why they come
to that decision. When I got my decision from
the parole board, I could not think, I had built
my hopes up too high. I could not believe what
had happened. They did not tell me that I
walked on the wrong side of the ground or anything, just no interest.
When Bullock entered prison she was an insulindependent diabetic. Over the years, her health deteriorated dramatically. In 2000, Bullock wrote:
I am now 59 years old. I am Diabetic. I have
Kidney Failure, Seizures, High Blood Pressure
and a Brain Tumor. I take approximately 15
medications a day, and I am put on a Kidney
machine about every other day. I have been
Blind in my left eye for about eight years…All
of my time is dedicated to taking care of my
health problems and basic hygiene. I am unable to participate in any of the activities or
programs within the institution. I have a few
friends that assist me in getting my food tray

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

from the chow hall while I am on the Kidney
machine.
The board did see Bullock again in July 2003, when
she was 63. By then, the Michigan Legislature had
completely overhauled the drug laws, eliminating
mandatory sentences and applying sentencing
guidelines instead. Under the new laws, given her
minimal prior record, the trial judge would have
been able to sentence Bullock to a minimum term
as low as nine years. In November, when she had
still received no decision, Bullock wrote in a letter:
I saw the board on July 14th. As far as I know
there is no reason for them keeping me. They
ask me questions about being at a gambling
party & getting a $5.00 drunk driving ticket
40 years ago, but I don’t remember that and he
seem to have a problem with me not remembering it but I don’t remember. I can’t see why they
would keep me here for that. I’ve already served
15½ years and a little over. I need help real
bad. You know these people could have let me
go after 10 yrs. I’m old & sick. I really want to
go home.
Bullock never got home. In late January 2004, pressure from the tumor caused blood vessels in her
brain to burst. Multiple surgeries performed at University of Michigan Hospital were not enough to
save her. Bullock died on February 11, 2004, never
having received another decision from the parole
board.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

63

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

The view from then to now

Nick Lazin

Lloyd Tisi

64

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Martin Vargas

Robert Schraw

Philandius Ford

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

65

BLANK

Recommendations
for change

BLANK

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGE
Making the lifer review process fairer, more rational and more cost-effective would not be difficult.
The problems raised in this report have straightforward solutions. Some involve restoring discarded
practices. Others involve increasing accountability.
Still others are meant to ensure that all relevant factors are thoroughly considered.
Implementing some of these recommendations
would carry marginal short-term fiscal costs. However, not only would these costs be relatively small,
they would be justified by offsetting gains. The
human costs of present practices would decrease;
the quality of parole decision-making would increase; the MDOC budget could be reduced if it
turns out that hundreds of lifers can be safely released.

Recommendation One
Problem
Reviewing lifers’ files without conducting personal
interviews does not give the board an adequate basis for assessing the person’s character and potential
risk. Parole eligibility reports that merely summarize a prisoner’s program participation and misconduct history convey little sense of who a person is.
The lack of an interview also denies the prisoner an
opportunity to try to persuade the board that he or
she has earned release. A process built on the assumption that lifers are not even worth the time to
see in person inevitably reduces the chances that
parole will be granted.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

Solution
Restore the requirement that lifers must be interviewed in person before the board decides whether
to proceed to public hearing.

Recommendation Two
Problem
Five years is too long a period between routine lifer
reviews. It is based on the assumption that lifers
are not likely to be paroled in any event so it is not
worth the trouble of reviewing them more often.
These unreasonably long intervals between parole
interviews unnecessarily lengthen the time served
by people who could be safely released.
Solution
Once a lifer is eligible for parole, review them no
less often than every two years, like other paroleeligible prisoners.

Recommendation Three
Problem
The board does not calculate parole guidelines scores
for lifers and therefore lacks any proven, objective
basis for assessing a lifer’s actual risk of reoffending.
Risk is logically related to various characteristics of

69

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

the offender, not to the nature of the sentence, so a
risk assessment instrument is no less valid for lifers
than for any other offender.
Solution
Use the parole guidelines to assess the risk of releasing parole-eligible lifers as is done with all other
prisoners.

Recommendation Four
Problem
The parole board has the absolute power to deny a
lifer release forever by simply stating it has “no interest” in proceeding to public hearing. It need
offer no explanation and its decision is not subject
to any review. The process creates a high risk of
arbitrary or poorly-reasoned decisions that cannot
be corrected.
Solution
Require the board to provide written reasons, tied
specifically to each lifer’s individual facts, when it
decides not to proceed to public hearing. If the
prisoner scores “high probability of release” on the
parole guidelines, require these reasons to be substantial and compelling, as they must be for other
prisoners with similar scores, and permit the prisoner to appeal a “no interest” decision to the courts.

Recommendation Five
Problem
Even when the parole board has interest in proceeding to public hearing, a judge who may know
little about the prisoner can prevent parole by filing, without explanation, an objection that is not
subject to review by a higher court. Currently a
successor judge may exercise a veto based primarily
on the contents of the original, decades-old presentence report.
Solution
Take steps to ensure that judges make thoughtful
decisions based on complete, up-to-date information. 1) Require the parole board to give adequate
information to the sentencing or successor judge
about the prisoner’s institutional history and to
explain specifically why the board thinks release may
be appropriate. 2) Require the board to provide
the prisoner with a copy of the material sent to the
judge so the prisoner can supplement it if he or she
so desires. 3) Require a judge who objects to a lifer’s
parole to articulate specific reasons. 4) Permit the
prisoner to appeal a judicial objection as an abuse
of discretion.

Recommendation Six
Problem
There are presently at least 670 parolable lifers who
have served more than 15 years and at least 360
prisoners who have served 25 years on mandatory
life terms. Even if procedures are changed to im-

70

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

prove the lifer review process in the future, it would
take an inordinately long time for the board to work
through this backlog, given its responsibilities for
deciding thousands of other non-lifer cases annually. In addition, since these lifers have all received
five-year continuances during the last decade under
the current “life means life” policy, it is important
they receive a fresh look from a body not predisposed to deny release.
Solution
Establish, for a period of three years, a special lifer
review board with the responsibility for assessing
only these cases and the authority to grant parole or
recommend commutation. Require the board to
consider, along with all other relevant factors, any
evidence of the sentencing court’s intention regarding how long the prisoner would actually serve and
the sentence the prisoner could receive under current sentencing guidelines. The existence of the
special lifer review board could be extended for one
year at a time if needed to complete consideration
of every designated case. Lifers who have been considered and rejected for parole or commutation by
the special board would thereafter be routinely reviewed by the parole board.

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

71

No Way Out: Michigan’s parole board redefines the meaning of “life”

Acknowledgments

The report grew out of a project initiated by the Prisons and Corrections Section of the State Bar of Michigan. CAPPS assumed responsibility when the Bar Section was unable to complete the project. CAPPS
wishes to thank Penny Ryder of the American Friends Service Committee and Kay Perry of Michigan CURE
for their assistance in obtaining the files of many parole-eligible lifers.
This report was written by Barbara Levine and Dena Anderson. Gail Light designed and produced it. Diane
Russell provided editorial assistance. Attorney Sherrie Guess calculated the sentencing guidelines scores for
the cases that were profiled.
CAPPS conducted a special fund-raising effort to bring this project to fruition. In the end, our success
depended in large part on the extraordinary generosity of Annette Johnson. Our gratitude for her substantial
gift, which covered well over half the cost, cannot be overstated. Special thanks go to A.W. Hemmings and
the JEHT Foundation for their generous contributions. We also gratefully acknowledge donations from the
following members of the Michigan Bar: Matthew Abel, Michael Barnhart, Mark Bendure, P. E. Bennett,
Gail Benson, Donald Bleich, James Brisbois, Gordon Britten, Craig Daly, Lynn D’Orio, Frank Eaman,
Telford Elders, Stuart Friedman, Elizabeth Jacobs, Randall Levine, Ernestine McGlynn, Douglas Mullkoff,
Margaret Raben, Charlene Snow, David H. Soet, F. Martin Tieber, and Robert Webster.
Finally, CAPPS wishes to thank the more than 170 parole-eligible lifers who submitted material for review
in preparation of the report and who waited so patiently for it to be completed.

72

Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending

 

 

Prison Profiteers - Side
Advertise Here 2nd Ad
Prisoner Education Guide side