A Law School professor and his students issued a complaint last week to defend the rights of prisoners serving sentences in Wayne County prisons, who they claim have been unfairly denied parole because of changes to the parole system after their sentencing.
Prof. Paul Reingold and two Law School students filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of seven plaintiffs who are currently serving life sentences in the Michigan Department of Corrections. The complaint was filed against members of the Michigan Parole Board and Artina Hartman, the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs were given “parolable” life sentences prior to 1992 — sentences that judges gave while maintaining that prisoners could reasonably hope for parole. The complaint states that the changes in the parole system in 1992 caused the Parole Board to end its consideration of any prisoner serving a life sentence for parole.
Declaring that this new policy was instated after the sentencing of these prisoners, the complaint classifies the parole policy as a violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan said judges in the 1970s and 1980s believed a parolable life-sentence would offer more incentive for prisoner rehabilitation than a sentence for a set number of years. Since then, the Parole Board has changed its interpretation of a life sentence, Sullivan said.
“The Department of Corrections said if you say ‘life’ you mean ‘life,’ and that’s more serious,” he said. “The judges sentenced (prisoners before 1992) with an understanding that’s no longer correct,” he added.
The complaint contains quotes from several sentencing judges, including one from Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Columbo that explicitly states the conflict between his intent for plaintiff Kenneth Foster-Bey and the Parole Board’s interpretation of Foster-Bey’s sentence.
“Mr. Kenneth Foster is serving a sentence of life which the Parole Board now treats as life, something this sentencing judge never expected or intended to happen when he sentenced him in 1975,” Columbo was quoted as saying in the complaint.
All three plaintiffs named in the complaint were convicted of second-degree murder, and one was also convicted of felony firearm possession. One of the plaintiffs, William Sleeper, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder when he was 17 years old. He has been serving his parolable life sentence since 1966.
Caleb Weiner, a Law student and assistant to Reingold, said he empathizes with the plaintiffs.
“If you hear the story and have any sympathy for prisoners’ rights, it seems as though these (prisoners) are being treated unfairly,” he said.
Sullivan said the Parole Board’s refusal to review the cases of “lifers” is detrimental to their rehabilitation. The complaint cites a number of instances in which parole was denied to “lifers” with admirable behavior records in prison.
But Leo LaLonde, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said parole is not being denied to all prisoners serving parolable life sentences.
“Last year, 12 parolable life-sentence prisoners got parole, but some people think that’s not enough,” he said.
LaLonde said the Parole Board is justified in being tough in its decisions.
“Those judges could have given those prisoners a fixed term — 15, 25 years — but they didn’t. They chose to give them life,” he said. “Thirteen, 14 years later, our Parole Board looks to the order from the judge and it says life,” he added.
Sullivan said the Parole Board should at least examine the specific cases of the plaintiffs.
“Some people should be paroled, others should not,” he said. “If you kill someone and you don’t do well in prison, you shouldn’t be paroled. If you rehabilitate yourself, you should be reviewed for parole.”
Weiner agreed that the plaintiffs deserve to have their cases reviewed by the Parole Board.
“(The complaint is) trying to get the treatment that the plaintiffs expected,” he said. “It wouldn’t guarantee that each of them would be released, but it would give some of them an opportunity to get released.”
Weiner worked specifically on the research for the motion for class certification, a distinction which, if the Law School team is successful, would make a decision on the complaint apply to all parolable life-sentence prisoners who were sentenced prior to 1992 — not only the seven plaintiffs.
But Weiner said that even if the class action were not approved, this case could still be helpful for those prisoners.
“Even if a class isn’t certified, other individuals situated similarly to the plaintiffs would likely benefit from a legal victory, because it would set a precedent, and the (Parole Board) would know that if it didn’t change its course of action, more lawsuits would be on the way,” Weiner said.