Carol Jacobsen, if she had been born in another time, might have been one of the abolitionists who helped shuttle runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Faced with an unjust system she is powerless to change, she’s doing everything she can to help a few of its victims escape.
Jacobsen, a professor of art at the University, runs the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project. With the help of students, attorneys and other like-minded people, she has taken up the cases of 20 imprisoned women, most of whom killed their husbands or boyfriends in self-defense, and asked Gov. Jennifer Granholm to grant them clemency.
For a while, things seemed encouraging. William Milliken, the former Republican governor, personally lobbied Granholm to let the women free. Late last month, though, Granholm denied all 20 requests. That’s not surprising – she’s facing a tough re-election challenge, and the last thing she wants is to be seen as soft on crime. It’s easy to talk about doing the right thing when you don’t have to worry about losing your job.
Through a spokesperson, Granholm rationalized her decision by saying the parole board had recommended she deny the petitions. When I mentioned this to Jacobsen, she rolled her eyes. Michigan’s parole board is notoriously reluctant to give violent offenders a second chance. Its approach has been responsible for keeping many of these women in prison for decades.
The parole board’s severity can be traced back to 1992, when a parolee named Leslie Allen Williams raped and murdered four young women. John Engler, then a first-term Republican governor, jumped at the opportunity to bolster his tough-on-crime credentials. Using Williams as a bogeyman, he pushed through stricter parole policies and replaced the board – until then composed of seven civil servants from within the corrections department – with 10 political appointees, including several former cops and prosecutors.
Under the new board, the term “life with the possibility of parole” has become a cruel joke. Inmates serving parolable life sentences, who previously could expect to be released after 10 or 15 years if they behaved well, now have little hope of parole. In effect, Michigan has abandoned rehabilitation as a goal for many serious violent offenders.
It’s not just bleeding hearts like Jacobsen who find this approach troubling. Several Michigan judges have publicly criticized it. “What the parole board has done is unilaterally convert a parolable sentence into an unparolable one,” Brian Sullivan, a Wayne County circuit judge, told the Detroit Free Press last year. “That is an extreme position that can deprive people of hope.”
Some of the judges who sentenced the women Jacobsen is fighting for have taken a similar position. Norman Lippitt, the judge who gave Karen Kantzler a life sentence for killing her husband in 1988, has written a letter to Granholm saying he had been under the impression that she could be paroled after 10 years. Had he known that the parole board would never let that happen, he wrote, he would have sentenced Kantzler to a maximum of 15 years.
For most prisoners serving life sentences – even first-degree murderers serving life without parole – an approach like that one would be more just. Americans often accept without question the idea that cold-blooded murderers are to be locked away forever, but in the rest of the civilized world, true life sentences are reserved for the very worst criminals, those who are beyond redemption. Murderers in Western Europe rarely serve more than 15 or 20 years; those countries recognize that such a long term is almost always enough to ensure an offender won’t pose a threat.
Take Machelle Pearson. Of all the women whose cases Jacobsen is pursuing, Pearson, who is serving life without parole, is the hardest to feel sympathy for. Unlike the others, she didn’t kill her abuser – she fatally shot Nancy Faber, the wife of an Ann Arbor News columnist, during a botched robbery in 1983. Pearson, 17 at the time, was taking orders from an abusive boyfriend.
A friend testified that Pearson high-fived her boyfriend upon learning that Faber, a mother of two children and the only witness to the crime, had died three days after the shooting. It’s easy to see why Jacobsen nearly rejected her case.
But nearly 23 years later, Pearson bears no resemblance to the desperate, abuse-scarred 17-year-old girl who could be manipulated into doing anything by her domineering boyfriend. She has been a model prisoner, spending her time working with inmates who have AIDS. Her body is deteriorating from a neuromuscular disorder. And she has suffered more than anyone should: While in prison, she has been raped by a guard, impregnated and forced to give up the baby for adoption.
Michigan’s prisons are filled with people like Pearson– men and women who did terrible things decades ago, but have since changed and could lead productive lives on the outside if given a chance. The sentencing guidelines and parole policies that are keeping them locked away are politically popular, but they don’t make sense. If a Democratic governor like Granholm isn’t willing to use the power of her office to grant a few of them mercy, it’s hard to see how the state’s politicians will ever find the courage to make the justice system more just.
Fresard is the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.