Michigan to Drop Minimum Sentence Rules for Drug Crimes

 December 26, 2002
Michigan to Drop Minimum Sentence Rules for Drug Crimes

ANSING, Mich., Dec. 25 (AP) - Karen Shook was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1993 for arranging a drug deal for a man who turned out to be an
undercover police officer. But Ms. Shook, a former bank teller, could be paroled 10 years early under legislation expected to be signed by the governor in the next week to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
Michigan is one of several states revising mandatory minimum sentences. Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey and North Carolina are also considering eliminating such rules, said Laura Sager, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington group.
Michigan Department of Corrections officials do not know how many of the state's 49,296 inmates could be eligible for parole under the legislation, which would take effect March 1. But supporters of the legislation said the state's skyrocketing prison population made the law necessary.
Critics of Michigan's mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have pushed for changes for years, but economic difficulties may ultimately have led to their elimination.
The state, facing a $1.5 billion general fund deficit in the coming fiscal year, spends about $1.4 billion a year on its prison population, or an average of $28,000 for each inmate, said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
This month, as the Legislature struggled with the state budget, it approved eliminating mandatory sentences. The departing governor, John Engler, a Republican, supports the move. 
Laurie Quick, Ms. Shook's sister, said her family did not know about the state's strict sentencing guidelines until Ms. Shook, now 49, was arrested.
"It's been a nightmare," Ms. Quick said. "She has seen murderers and other convicted felons come and leave since she's been there. It's cruel."
Although the Michigan legislation would make some offenders eligible for early parole, a decision about their release is ultimately up to the parole board. Drug offenders have the highest rate of parole, at 72 percent, Mr. Marlan said.
Nearly 62 percent of other nonviolent offenders receive parole when they are first eligible, followed by violent offenders at 40 percent and sex offenders at 15 percent, he said.
The legislation requires judges to follow state guidelines when sentencing criminals to prison. But eliminating mandatory minimums will give them much more discretion.
"The time had come to make the change," said David Morse, the Livingston County prosecutor. "The idea of stiff severe penalties for drug kingpins was a problem because we weren't getting those kingpins. We were getting people who were carrying on behalf of kingpins."
Under current law, Michigan judges are allowed to deviate from the mandatory minimum guidelines only in extraordinary circumstances.
Now, the law requires a sentence of at least 10 years and up to 20 years in prison for a person convicted of possessing 50 to 224 grams of narcotics or cocaine. The legislation would allow the judge to impose any sentence up to 20 years.

Source: N.Y. Times