Michigan inmates get remedy in parole ban case

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- The state of Michigan is clearing the way for about 130 prisoners to apply for parole after a judge threw out an unusual state policy that had treated them as mandatory lifers because they committed another crime behind bars.

The state won't appeal the 2013 decision as part of an agreement "to provide full, fair and complete parole review" to the inmates, according to an order signed last week by Court of Claims Judge Deborah Servitto.

The inmates were sent to prison on life sentences with a chance at parole for crimes such as second-degree murder, assault or armed robbery. They typically would be eligible for parole consideration after 10 or 15 years.

But then they got in trouble again. Possessing contraband or a homemade weapon turned out to have drastic consequences. Some were accused of crimes while they were already out on parole. In all the cases, inmates were placed in a new category that blocked any possibility of release.

The law's interpretation by the Corrections Department and parole board was "mistaken," Ingham County Judge Joyce Draganchuk said in September.

In a court filing, state lawyers said the law had been "consistently applied" and never questioned by the Legislature. The state's interpretation apparently was discovered during litigation in another case.

"The issue appears to be resolved for all time," Paul Reingold, a University of Michigan law professor who filed the lawsuit with help from students, said last Friday.

He got testimony from shocked judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers who said they had no idea how the state was treating certain prisoners.

The inmates who should benefit include Amy Nowak, 43. She was arrested for shoplifting in St. Clair County in 2010 while on parole from a life sentence and now is locked up and being treated as a mandatory lifer.

Michael Watkins, 51, who has been in prison for more than 20 years, didn't learn about his no-parole status until his family filed a Freedom of Information request.

Published: Tue, Mar 18, 2014