Michigan's parolable lifers want a chance at a normal life, but getting there is complicated
More than 40% of the prisoners at Lakeland Correctional Facility are lifers. But not every life sentence is the same.
We’ve reported a lot on the lifers who were sentenced for crimes they committed before they were 18. Some of those lifers have a new sense of hope after the Supreme Court decided that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.
But there’s another group of people convicted as juveniles who aren’t affected by that decision.
These are people who got a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Their situation is, in some ways, more complicated.
The Michigan Department of Corrections says there are more than 800 parolable lifers in Michigan prisons who are eligible for parole consideration. The organization Safe & Just Michigan estimates more than 60 of them were sentenced as juveniles.
And I don't see where I'm ever getting out. The parole board people: 'We don't want to talk to you.' Why?
One of those people is Raymond Richardson. He’s an inmate at Lakeland. He was sentenced for a crime he committed when he was 15 years old - in 1984.
“They say I got a possible chance for parole, but at what point do I get my possible chance?” he says. “And I don’t see where I’m ever getting out. The parole board people: ‘We don’t want to talk to you.’ Why?”
As it stands now, prisoners with a parolable life sentence become eligible for parole after 15 years. The parole board will hold a hearing. Usually, that doesn’t end in parole. After that, the board considers the case every five years. But they don’t have to hold a hearing, or even talk to the prisoner. They can just review the file.
Richardson’s file has some bad stuff in it. He was convicted for a robbery in which he held people hostage, sexually assaulted a woman, and shot someone, according to a Detroit Free Press article from the time.
But he was 15 then. He’s spent more than twice as long as that in prison.
Richardson says he has a job in prison. He takes self-improvement classes. He has his GED.
“I’m doing everything that I can possibly do to show that I’ve grown and matured and taken steps to rehabilitate myself,” he says. “And I’m constantly being told, ‘No. Five years. We’ll see you in five years.’”
The standard file review, he says, doesn’t give him a chance to show who he really is today. It doesn’t give him a meaningful chance at parole, as he puts it.
“Back in the day, when a lot of these sentences were being imposed, you know there was an expectation on the part of judges that people might not get out in ten, but they’d get out in 12 or 14 years,” says Barbara Levine who was the head of an organization now known as Safe & Just Michigan.
She’s written reports on the issue of parolable lifers. The most recent was in 2014.
For the report, she surveyed judges. She found two-thirds of them didn’t agree with the idea that a life with parole meant that a prisoner would stay their whole life in prison.
But a lot of prosecutors see it that way.
“I mean, it’s always been the practice and the law that a person who receives a life sentence is eligible for parole consideration,” says Bill Vailliencourt, the Livingston County prosecutor, who also serves as president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. “But I think everyone has always understood that that means it’s up to the parole board to make those determinations.”
Vailliencourt says many prosecutors take the view that “life means life” in these cases.
In a statement, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office mostly sided with that view.
“Generally we have taken the position that a defendant sentenced to life should only be released for extra-ordinary behavior on his part, or other factors such as the defendant was very young when he/she committed the offense,” the office said in a statement to Michigan Radio.
Prosecutors can’t stop a prisoner from being paroled, but they can file an objection with the parole board.
Judges do have the power to veto the parole of a prisoner with a life sentence, but in 2016, a new law limited that power. The new law says only the judge who heard the original case can stop the parole. Any successor judge who takes over after that judge retires or dies can’t stop the parole.
But the people with the most power to parole these lifers are parole board members.
Levine says in the past, the parole board members were very reluctant to release any lifers.
“People should not assume that lifers are somehow more culpable, that their offenses are any worse,” she says. “And they shouldn’t assume from all the time that they’ve served that they’re somehow at fault - that they must have been screwing up, otherwise the board would have released them.”
Levine says her research shows lifers who do get paroled are much less likely to re-offend. Many of them are much older when they get out, and not likely to return to crime. And, she notes, as they grow older in prison, their incarceration costs the state more.
Safe & Just Michigan has been tracking the number of lifers who are granted parole each year. In recent years, those numbers have been going up. More parolable lifers are getting out. But reformers such as Levine still want to see more changes.
In 2014, legislation was introduced to change parole reviews so that they occur every two years, instead of five. The legislation also required that at least one parole board member speak to the prisoner, either in a video chat or a personal meeting.
Richardson says his next parole board review is in 2021.
And he says he dreams about getting out. He dreams about getting his chance to prove he can be a productive member of society, and live a normal life.
“Man, I never even drove a car yet,” he says. “That’s one of my biggest dreams, of just going and getting my license and learning to drive.”
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