Lax controls leave state’s ex-cons free to kill


A seven-month investigation by the Detroit Free Press of the Michigan Department of Corrections revealed serious problems: Agents failed to properly supervise offenders accused in recent high-profile crimes, offenders weren’t outfitted with electronic tethers and others weren’t returned to prison for new crimes. This is the first of a three-part series.

“He just broke in … I’m on the floor and I can’t get up and I’m bleeding.”

— 10:11 a.m. Feb. 23, 2011, JoAnn Eisenhardt desperately calls 9-1-1 after being attacked in her Macomb Township home by Joseph Reiner. She later died from her injures.

MICHIGAN — As the Michigan Department of Corrections searches for ways to manage its nearly $2-billion budget, it is releasing ex-cons into the community who are committing a growing number of violent crimes, a Detroit Free Press investigation found.

The MDOC and the union that represents parole and probation agents blame each other for the problems, but while they debate the cause, the result is clear and disturbing: Convicts who should have been behind bars or closely monitored were left on the streets unchecked, attacking and killing innocent victims.

A seven-month Free Press investigation found the MDOC failed to properly supervise some of the most violent of the state’s roughly 70,000 offenders under its watch. A total of 88 parolees and probationers were suspected, arrested or convicted in 95 murders between Jan. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31. The number nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011 – from 21 to 38. And already in the first eight months of this year, 36 killings have been attributed to ex-cons under MDOC supervision, according to department critical incident reports.

The victims included an 80-year-old Royal Oak woman whose throat was slit, a 12-year-old Detroit girl who was shot to death and a Farmington Hills family who were brutally beaten with baseball bats.

Among the MDOC’s failures: Offenders weren’t outfitted with court-ordered electronic tethers, agents didn’t send people back to prison for new crimes or failed drug tests, and in some cases, agents falsified documents by claiming to have made visits or calls with offenders that never occurred.

Today’s problems may trace back to 2007 – when Michigan’s prison population peaked, and state officials enacted reforms that have led to a nearly 15 percent drop in prisoners in the ensuing years. The department is now scrambling to fix its mistakes – firing what it says are a small number of lax parole and probation agents, reopening a prison to house parole violators and tightening supervision.

MDOC Director Daniel Heyns disputes that public safety is at risk but acknowledged in an interview with the Free Press in March that mistakes have been made. When asked this month about the increase in violent crimes, Heyns pointed to the department’s recent efforts to improve public safety.

“I think that we needed to tighten up our supervision,” Heyns said in March. “I think we needed to audit caseloads. We needed to find out which agents were complying with the policy and which ones weren’t. And in the cases where we screwed something up, we needed to take action because it’s not just that case, but it’s the message it sends to the employees.”

Heyns said in September that the MDOC has done that, beginning with monthly audits on caseloads. He said it’s too soon to tell what the inspections show.

But the union that represents Michigan’s 1,300 parole and probation agents says the department, to cut costs, is playing a dangerous game with the public’s safety by forcing agents to ignore signs of trouble when supervising offenders.

“You practically have to kill somebody nowadays to be returned to prison,” said Kelly Barnett, a representative for UAW Local 6000 and former probation officer. “It is a pressure cooker for the agents because they know that policy has tied their hands, that upper management has tied their hands, but it gives the impression that these agents are not doing their jobs.”

The MDOC’s supervision of offenders has sparked outrage among prosecutors and families whose loved ones were hurt or killed by parolees and probationers.

Donna Hazley, 64, of Detroit is angry that the man accused of attacking her daughter at a McDonald’s drive-through in Chesterfield Township in January wasn’t behind bars. Roland L. Moore Jr., 35, repeatedly violated his probation and parole for years, records show.

“They’re too lenient, I think,” Hazley said. “Nowadays that’s all that they’re doing is just slapping them on the wrist … Well, who’s got to suffer is the innocent people they attack.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy demanded better oversight.

“I’ve been screaming about this for years,” as has the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, Worthy said. “We have been saying this to anyone who would listen. They are loose and incompetent about who they release.”

MDOC’s stall tactics

“All I saw was big, big eyes … I’m afraid he’s going to come back.”

It was Feb. 23, 2011, and JoAnn Eisenhardt was alone in her Macomb Township home when a man kicked in the door and stabbed her in the neck with two steak knives.

Eisenhardt, 69, bleeding on her kitchen floor – the knives embedded in her neck – called 911 and begged for help. For more than six minutes, as deputies raced to her house, she moaned in pain and tried to describe what her attacker looked like and what he stole.

Eisenhardt was hospitalized and died a few months later.

Parolee Joseph Reiner, 29, was convicted of first-degree murder on Sept. 14. He will be sentenced in October to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the 95 murders between Jan. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, one offender was killed by police, two committed suicide, 82 have been charged or convicted, and a few were acquitted or had charges dropped, according to records and authorities.

A Detroit Free Press review of the critical incident reports shows the number of people under the MDOC’s watch or recently released from supervision who are suspected or charged with violent crimes – including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and sexual assault – rose from 35 in 2010 to 57 in 2011. In the first eight months of 2012, 52 offenders have been accused in violent crimes.

The most recent cases include the killings of an 84-year-old security guard at a Detroit church and a 60-year-old veteran who tried to save his granddaughter during a home invasion in Detroit. Another is awaiting trial on charges that he killed a man napping in a park and then abducted, raped and shot a young woman walking her baby in a stroller. She survived.

The MDOC acknowledged the disturbing trend in a Dec. 12 memo discussing its action plan for parole violators: “… very recently the MDOC has realized an increase in parolees arrested for, or suspects in, violent attacks on Michigan citizens. In particular, several of the parolees were parole absconders at the time of the offense.”

In March, the Free Press requested five years of critical incident reports, but the MDOC has yet to turn over records from 2007-09. The MDOC did fulfill a request in September for critical incident reports from April through August.

Justifying the long delay for records, the MDOC said reports were being stored in boxes while the office was being renovated. The Free Press later learned records are kept electronically.

Preventable attacks

“The front door has a deadbolt lock on it…and he kicked right through it.”

Reiner, who authorities say thought Eisenhardt’s home was empty when he broke in, isn’t the only ex-con charged in a recent high-profile slaying.

The first case to draw scrutiny of the MDOC’s policies was the death of 80-year-old Nancy Dailey in her Royal Oak home on Nov. 20. Two parolees with lengthy criminal histories are accused of breaking into her home and slashing her throat to steal items for money for drugs.

The Free Press first reported in February that agents supervising suspects Alan Wood, 49, and Tonia Watson, 41 passed up numerous opportunities to return them to prison, even as they repeatedly violated parole and became suspects in three police investigations

After probationer Joshua Brown, 19, was arrested following the Jan. 31 slaying of 12-year-old Kade’jah Davis of Detroit, the MDOC learned he wasn’t wearing an electronic tether as a judge ordered.

The department conducted an audit and discovered that 74 offenders, court-ordered to wear electronic tethers in the metro Detroit region, were never outfitted with devices.

Brown’s trial ended in a hung jury Sept. 13, and he will be retried in March.

“It’s really hard trying to function without my Kade’jah daily,” Almanda Talton, Kade’jah’s mother, said via text message. “She’s everything to me.”

Another slaying that put the spotlight on the MDOC occurred April 16, when probationer Tucker Cipriano, 19, was accused of bludgeoning his father to death with a baseball bat and severely beating his mother and brother. Cipriano had stopped reporting to his agent before the attack.

Michael Alexander, administrator of the Field Operations Administration Metropolitan Region, suggested in an email – contained in a whistle-blower complaint filed against the MDOC in August – that the slaying could have been prevented had the agent intervened.

The email said Cipriano’s agent didn’t meet with him after his release from jail or begin looking for him when he neglected to report.

“Unlike some other cases in which the correlation between supervision being met and the critical incident happening is somewhat vague, we can’t overlook that fact that if the agent had done any one thing or more of the things that he failed to do, that there may have been an intervention in the behavior,” Alexander wrote.

When probationers are accused of violating their conditions, agents can seek arrest warrants. Judges decide whether to impose punishment – such as extending their probation or jailing them. With parolees, agents and their supervisors can charge offenders, hold a hearing with a parole violation specialist if the offender fights the charge, and impose sentences.

Cutting numbers

“He grabbed me … I tried to push him down … he was too strong.”

The story of Reiner’s crime and Eisenhardt’s suffering illustrates the MDOC’s challenges – how to release parolees, supervise probationers and keep the community safe.

Since the Free Press began investigating, the MDOC has announced an eight-point plan that includes auditing caseloads and reviewing drug-testing policies and has been returning more violators to prison.

Heyns said he wants to create a stronger partnership with law enforcement, get agents into the field, invest in improved technology, expand compliance patrols at night and on weekends and use national best practices for effective supervision.

The MDOC reopened the Ryan Correctional Facility in May to provide more beds for violators. MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan called it the best way to house a growing population of parolees returned to custody for committing such infractions as drinking or not reporting.

The MDOC is on pace this year to return more parolees to prison for technical violations — such as positive drug tests and failing to report — than in any year since 2006, MDOC figures show. Through July, 1,673 violators went back to prison, while there were 1,894 in all of 2011. Before that, the MDOC had been closing prisons since 2007, reducing inmate populations from more than 50,000 that year to just under 44,000 as of mid-August.

Reducing recidivism

“He kept coming, stepping over me and grabbing me by the neck … I’m bleeding on the floor.”

Marlan said the goal isn’t to keep the population down but to reduce crime and recidivism.

“The outcome will be a smaller prison population because fewer people will be coming back for violating parole and new crimes,” he said.

Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz, chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan’s committee on corrections, said prosecutors statewide are worried about the influx of offenders into the community as prisons close.

“We plan to be meeting with director Heyns on these issues soon,” he said. Prosecutors are encouraged that Heyns has provided electronic documents about upcoming parolees and helped expedite thousands of DNA samples from prisoners.

Statewide through July, the department was supervising 18,104 parolees and 50,546 probationers. A total of 4,402 ex-cons were paroled through June, compared with 11,159 by the end of 2011.

Those supervision numbers don’t include those who have stopped reporting; as of June 30, there were 1,772 parole absconders. Marlan said that number has declined, noting there were 2,120 in January 2011.

Marlan said the department’s recidivism rate – calculated by those who go back to prison within three years of their release – was 31.5 percent for those released in 2008. That’s the lowest rate dating to 1998, based on statistics Marlan provided.

Dr. David Martin, research associate with the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, said recidivism rates are controversial. Using a broad definition, he said he found that 50 percent of offenders in Michigan re-offended within the first 18 months of their release by getting into some type of trouble.

Martin has been critical of the way offenders are supervised. He said too much of it is done by phone, and officials have told him some agents don’t go into Detroit neighborhoods because it is dangerous.

“I don’t see enough field supervision going on in the city of Detroit,” Martin said.

‘I tried to help you’

“He took my two rings that I had on … and then he went in the bedroom and I don’t know what he took.”

Barbara Levine, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending – a nonprofit public agency that studies Michigan’s correction system – advocates for shorter prison terms, spending less on incarceration and more on services for those released.

Studies show longer prison terms don’t translate into better parolees, and more money spent on re-entry should translate into more success.

“You do a lot more work with the families before they ever come home, we need much more re-entry programming, and once they get out, there needs to be the support there,” she said.

MDOC’s strategy in recent years has included the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, introduced in 2005, which aims to assess a prisoner’s risk of reoffending and assist with housing, jobs and transportation once they’re out.

But agents said policies like MPRI took away their autonomy. While they were once allowed to violate an offender based on their own judgment, the new rules required layers of management approval and an analysis of whether the offender would continue to violate.

“That’s a scam,” said UAW’s Barnett. “It’s whatever the flavor of the month is. Ultimately, MDOC policies are not safe for the public.”

Heyns said agents have discretion on minor violations but must seek a supervisor’s approval in more serious violations.

“As you can imagine, all of these cases are different, involve unique circumstances and need to be examined on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We don’t have a decision grid that says, ‘If you do this, you get returned to prison’ or ‘If you do that, you don’t.’ However, if the behavior indicates a risk of re-offending, is threatening, assaultive or involves a weapon, the decision will most likely be return to prison.”

Law enforcement officials say the MPRI program doesn’t have enough oversight.

“The people they are releasing are violent, and they have a violent history,” said Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, a former judge and longtime critic of the MDOC. “It was bizarre and dangerous, a recipe for disaster. When you’re talking about that kind of volume, you’re talking about mistakes, and there were a lot of mistakes.”

As a former judge, Worthy said she saw offenders who violated probation seven or eight times before they were charged.

“That’s why the prison system is what it is, and the prisoners know it,” Worthy said. “It’s a big joke, and until we change that, that’s going to be a contributing factor to the high crime we have in this state.”

‘A huge blow’

“I’m on the floor … and he kept coming back and coming back … and trying to break my neck” …

For the loved ones of JoAnn Eisenhardt and others who were killed, the pain doesn’t go away.

Nancy Dailey’s niece Nan Drinkard said it has been a “huge blow to everyone in our family.”

Drinkard and Dailey traveled together and spent summers going to jazz concerts, plays and taking swims in Lake Huron. Her aunt loved life, she said.

It doesn’t make sense that someone as gentle as Dailey would die in such a brutal way, Drinkard said.

In the moments before she was killed, police say, the 80-year-old woman – who had hired Wood and Watson to do yard work – turned to her attackers and said, “I tried to help you, you dirty birds.”

“I feel frustrated that I was not there to help protect her,” Drinkard said. “It is especially tragic that we never got to say good-bye. Someone took that opportunity away.”

JoAnn Eisenhardt’s sons expressed relief, tempered by pain, when Reiner was convicted in Macomb County Circuit Court.

James Eisenhardt said his mother — a widow with three sons, four grandkids and three great-grandkids — was making tea at the time of the break-in.

“It’s like a nightmare, but it’s real,” said James Eisenhardt, 42.

Her son Howard Eisenhardt, 49, said the guilty verdict felt “like a ton of bricks just got lifted off.”

“One thing’s for sure. Joseph Reiner can’t do this anymore.”

Plan to target parole violators

The Michigan Department of Corrections created an eight-point plan to target parole violators. The points are:

  • Increase collaboration between the MDOC Absconder Recovery Unit, MDOC Emergency Response Teams, Michigan State Police Fugitive Apprehension Teams and the U.S. Marshal Fugitive Apprehension Teams to focus on high-risk absconders.
  • Conduct yearly audits of caseloads to ensure appropriate supervision and that parole agents are complying with work statements, policies and procedures.
  • Conduct a review of parolee drug-testing policy, with attention to positive tests and treatment versus decisions on incarceration.
  • Develop greater bed space resources to allow for sanctions of parolees at risk of re-offending.
  • Increase use of GPS tracking for parolees who commit technical parole violations.
  • Restore the MDOC Most Wanted Web page, which will allow citizens to submit anonymous tips on parole violators.
  • Expand the Nighthawk program, which has parole agents teaming up with state and local law enforcement to conduct parolee home calls.
  • Designate a parole coordinator to monitor this project, engage in agreements with outside agencies, develop and track productivity measures and meet with the director regularly.

Posted by Tribune News Services

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