Jackson — On an early March tour of Michigan’s prison intake center, new Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein learned that corrections officials want more guidance from judges about their expectations for the lawbreakers sent here.
New prisoners and rearrested parole absconders are processed at the three-building complex before being assigned to correctional facilities around the state. Inmates arrive with sentencing orders and other paperwork but nothing to indicate why a judge prescribed a certain prison term or what the goal of it is, Michigan Corrections Director Dan Heyns said.
“It would be helpful for judges to tell us the intent of their sentences,” Heyns told Bernstein, the nation’s first blind state Supreme Court justice. “If it’s strictly to provide public safety, we know how to do that. But if the intent is to get at the root cause of their criminality, tell us that.”
Bernstein’s unusual visit — prison officials couldn’t recall a previous visit from a sitting Supreme Court justice — came as lawmakers attempt to revive failed 2014 legislation calling for reforms of 1998 sentencing guidelines and parole policies. The changes were recommended last May by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which noted 1 in 5 state dollars is spent on corrections.
Heyns heads a department overseeing 43,000 inmates in 31 prisons and related facilities, plus more than 61,000 probationers and parolees on an annual budget exceeding $2 billion. He is under pressure to spend less.
Gov. Rick Snyder, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young and legislative leaders from both parties — who contracted for the inquiry — wanted to use a “justice reinvestment approach to study the state’s sentencing system, which would include an exhaustive data-driven analysis” of courts, jail, probation, prison and parole, according to the Justice Center report.
The report’s findings aimed to help the state spend its dollars better. But the resulting legislation came under fire from Attorney General Bill Schuette, who said the proposed changes would, in particular, relax parole policies in a way that could free dangerous inmates.
Bernstein’s visit lasted four hours. He was keen to get a feel for what prison is like and learn how he and the state’s highest court might improve coordination between judges who dispense justice and incarceration officials who administer it.
Corrections chief Heyns provided examples of the way judges’ decisions and state sentencing policies impact costs. For the crime of burglary, for example, the recidivism rate — chance of a repeat offense — is no lower after a five-year sentence than a three-year sentence, Heyns said.
“There’s no return on our investment for the other two years,” he added.
‘Very intense’ introduction
The 41-year-old justice was elected last year to an eight-year term after working at his family’s well-known Farmington Hills law firm, which specializes in personal injury litigation, not criminal law. He handled a number of disability rights cases the firm litigated.
“They said I have no experience with the criminal justice system,” he said referring to critics of his November campaign for the Supreme Court. “That’s a legitimate criticism.”
Bernstein said the legal briefs for criminal cases that come before the Supreme Court are “academic” in nature and don’t convey the harsh realities of prison life and rehabilitation.
At the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, Bernstein encountered stark facilities where 9,000 men are processed annually. They live for two weeks to a month in barred cells stacked in tiers with yellow-railed gangways.
In a classification process that normally takes 12 days, the Michigan Department of Corrections finds out if new inmates have diseases or dental problems (many do); are literate (many didn’t finish high school); are violent or mentally ill.
“It’s very intense, all-hands-on-deck,” Egeler Warden Heidi Washington said. It begins with an assessment of the potential for suicide. By the 10th day, an inmate should have had a full physical evaluation as mandated by a federal court agreement with the state, Washington said.
Prisoners in orange jump suits and slippers spend their days shuffling between concrete benches in holding cells and meetings in examining rooms with corrections department specialists.
The old-fashioned prison is intimidating to many of the new arrivals, Washington said. Bernstein said he could imagine how it would be nearly overwhelming to realize it’s the starting point for an incarceration that will last years — if not the rest of an inmate’s life.
It’s a quarantined facility, Washington said, because the staff knows little about any new inmate until the screening process is completed. That means no television, no personal possessions, no visits from anyone other than an attorney.
Inmates peered through bars as a small entourage trailed Bernstein and Washington along a four-story corridor separating the cells from an outside wall of opaque windows. Their living quarters while at Egeler are a remnant of an older Jackson prison complex, most of which has been torn down and replaced by newer structures.
A couple of them called out Bernstein’s name, together with something else that was lost in a din of shouts and yowls emanating from the cells, some seemingly directed at no one in particular.
“I wanted to know what it feels like to come here, I want to know the consequences of our decisions,” Bernstein said in the midst of it. “You learn about how every facet of your life is controlled. A free person does not think about that.”
The Egeler complex includes a 152-bed health center where prisoners from all over the system can be treated for serious illnesses. Some suffering from dementia or terminal cancer will spend their last days there.
“I love you, I love your energy,” Bernstein said while hugging health center domestic service worker Martha Peete, a 32-year prison system employee with an upbeat personality and a mop handle in her hands. “I just have to tell you your energy makes a difference to patients.”
At the end, the justice pressed for feedback about how to make the system work better. Half of the job of Supreme Court justices, he said, is to administer Michigan’s court system through rules governing their proceedings.
Heyns suggested perhaps something as simple as a statement outlining the expectations in each judge’s sentencing order would be a great help to prison officials. Bernstein said he wants to work at it but said any change “won’t happen overnight.”
Nearly two-thirds of the inmates now feeding into the system through Egeler are first-timers and half of them will be released within two years, according to Heyns.
“We don’t have a whole lot of time to do a lot of correction,” Heyns told Bernstein. “It calls into question, what are we really accomplishing with these people? It’s a huge cost.”