Karen Shook, a 49-year-old former bank teller who was sentenced to at least 20 years in prison in 1993 for arranging a drug deal, could be paroled 10 years early under legislation expected to be signed by the governor of Michigan within the next week to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
Michigan is one of several states revising its mandatory minimum sentences. Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and New Jersey also are considering eliminating such rules, said Laura Sager, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
State Department of Corrections officials don't know how many of Michigan's 49,296 inmates could be eligible for parole when the legislation take effect March 1. But supporters of the legislation said it will help alleviate the state's skyrocketing prison population.
Critics of Michigan's mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have spent years pushing for their revision, but some say the state's cash-strapped budget ultimately led to their elimination.
The state, facing a $1.5 billion general fund deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, spends about $1.4 billion a year on its prison population, or an average $28,000 for each inmate a year, said Russ Marlan, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
Laurie Quick, Shook's sister, said her family didn't know about Michigan's strict sentencing guidelines until Shook was arrested.
"It's been a nightmare," said Quick. "She has seen murderers and other convicted felons come and leave since she's been there. It's cruel."
Although Michigan's proposed legislation make some offenders eligible for early parole, a decision about their release is ultimately up to the parole board. But drug offenders have the highest rate of parole at 72 percent, said Marlan.
Nearly 62 percent of other nonviolent offenders receive parole when they are first eligible, followed by violent offenders at 40 percent and sex offenders at 15 percent, he said.
The legislation requires judges to follow state sentencing guidelines when sending drug criminals to prison. But eliminating mandatory minimums will give them much more discretion.
"The time had come to make the change," said David Morse, the Livingston County prosecutor. "The idea of stiff severe penalties for drug kingpins was a problem because we weren't getting those kingpins. We were getting people who were carrying on behalf of kingpins."
Under the current law, Michigan judges are only allowed to deviate from the mandatory minimum guidelines because of extraordinary circumstances.
Under current law, someone possessing 50 to 224 grams of narcotics or cocaine in Michigan must be sentenced to at least 10 years and up to 20 years in prison. The bills would eliminate the 10-year minimum, allowing the judge to sentence an offender for any time up to 20 years.