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Medically frail parole bill passes Michigan Senate

The Michigan state Senate room from the gallery.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Michigan’s medically frail prisoners could see a greater chance at parole under a bill passed in the state senate Tuesday.

That could include people who are deemed a low risk to society because of medical conditions like permanent physical disabilities that prevent them from walking, standing, or sitting without help.

Terminal medical or mental health conditions with limited life expectancies and permanent mental disorders like dementia would also qualify someone as “medically frail.”

Maria Goellner is director of state policy for the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Goellner said prisons are aging, meaning the Michigan Department of Corrections is spending more money to house inmates.

“So, if you’re looking at mass incarceration, or you’re looking at people in prison in Michigan, who’s going to give you your biggest bang for the buck? Who’s the highest cost, who’s the lowest risk? It is this population of old and sick people,” Goellner said.

During committee testimony, several speakers padded that point with concerns about the impact of having people who were imprisoned for crimes committed in their youth deteriorate after decades behind bars.

In 2019, the state passed a previous attempt at providing what’s sometimes called “compassionate release.” However, the law has not had its intended effect.

According to MDOC, only one person has successfully received medical parole so far under the act. Additional cases are currently under department review.

Some advocates blame strict language in the 2019 law as a reason why it has had a limited impact so far.

Still, a few lawmakers who voted no on the measure to expand eligibility Tuesday said they had issues with an expansion in the definitions of who’s considered medically fail.

Senator Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) shared concerns about the words “mental health” being included in wording describing terminally ill prisoners who would qualify for medical parole.

Johnson tried unsuccessfully to remove it from the bill before the vote.

“This language is more consistent with the intent of assisting individuals with terminal illness while removing language that is vague and could potentially open the door to legal actions for conditions that would not typically be considered terminal illness,” Johnson said.

But Goellner said there are enough steps between prison medical staff identifying a prisoner as medically frail and them being paroled to avoid abuse of the system.

“Somebody cannot come forward and say, ‘Hey I’m feeling down because I’m imprisoned. You know? Release me, I’m medically frail.' That is not what this is intended for,” Goellner said.

Tuesday’s bill passed the state Senate by a mostly party-line vote, with two Republicans voting alongside Democrats to pass the bill.

Senator Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he liked the policy idea but also shared Johnson’s concerns with the wording. Runestad also unsuccessfully tried to introduce a few changes to the legislation, including one that would require parolees who recover to return to prison.

“If a parolee beats whatever gave them the diagnosis, then at that point they should not be allowed to remain on the streets,” Runestad said.

The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives.