(Detroit Free Press) - On any given day, hundreds of convicted felons in Michigan pick up their phones and make a monthly call to Chicago to answer 90 seconds of automated questions.
Have you re-offended? Have you moved from your place of residence? Are you employed?
The new approach to monitoring some ex-cons, called OffenderLink, has been used in Michigan for 15 months. More than 14,400 probationers and parolees have participated.
Corrections officials bill it as a cost-effective means of monitoring a large population of low-risk offenders so probation and parole agents can concentrate on others who pose a greater risk to public safety.
But a Free Press review of records, obtained under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, found many offenders reporting by phone have criminal histories that include violent crimes, some are repeat offenders, and hundreds are chronic drunken drivers and drug users. The list includes armed bank robbers, a sex offender, arsonists, and seven felons who assaulted police officers.
A computer analysis of the records found that more than 300 parolees and probationers can no longer be reached. And dozens are back in custody, charged or convicted of committing new crimes.
"There is a lot of re-offending when it comes to probationers and parolees, and I don't think having them make a call once a month is going to help solve that problem," Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said.
Corrections Department cutting costs, but is it cutting public safety, too?
John Wesley Metzelburg, a parolee with 17 prior felony convictions dating to 1993, was selected to take part in Michigan's new approach to managing thousands of ex-cons.
In October 2010, he was reporting by phone -- calling once a month to an automated computer system in Chicago instead of seeing a parole officer.
Records show he was also regularly breaking into homes and stealing property. On Oct. 29, when deputies from Kent County and Kalamazoo tried to arrest him, Metzelburg and his wife led them on a high-speed chase through two counties.
Metzelburg fired more than 30 rounds during the chase, striking the deputies' cars before his vehicle crashed in Three Rivers, police said. One deputy was injured by bullet fragments.
Metzelburg, 36, was convicted of four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced in September to 120 years in prison.
He is among more than 14,440 probationers and parolees in Michigan assigned to the OffenderLink program, which began in June 2010. While ex-cons traditionally meet with a parole or probation officer each month, some are instead being transitioned to a monthly automated telephone reporting system.
Michigan Department of Corrections officials bill it as way to monitor low-risk offenders so agents can concentrate on those more likely to commit new crimes or ones who pose a safety risk. Not everyone can qualify for telephone reporting -- the MDOC has a list of crimes excluded from the program, such as sexual assaults, murder, kidnapping and felonious assault.
"Many states use telephone, kiosk, mail-in, call-in, etc., type reporting for low-risk offenders," MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan, wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press. "In fact, some states don't even supervise low-risk offenders at all. This is nothing new and is consistent with national best practices."
The largest number of "phoners" -- as probation agents call them -- have convictions for nonviolent crimes, such as failure to pay child support and welfare fraud.
But a Free Press review of the telephone reporting cases shows several hundred have prior convictions for armed robbery, attempted rape, arson, child abuse, bank robbery, assaults on police officers, manufacturing explosives, carjacking and other serious crimes. Another 300 or so -- including offenders with long histories of home invasion, drunken driving and drug use -- have stopped reporting and are now considered absconders.
Some, like Metzelburg, have gotten into serious trouble in the 15 months OffenderLink has been used.
"Look, our fear is for the safety of the people out there," said Nicole Jones, who worked as a probation officer at the Greenfield District Probation Office in Detroit for 15 years before transferring to UAW Local 6000, which represents probation officers. "They're putting seriously assaultive people on the streets."
The push to cut costs
The shift to telephone reporting to save money comes as the state prison system's budget is under increasing pressure to downsize.
On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder announced the closing of the Mound Road prison in Detroit, and the layoffs of 2,000 workers there as the state grapples with huge deficits. The corrections system had a $2-billion budget for 2010, state documents show.
The MDOC was unable to provide figures on how much money the OffenderLink system is saving the state, saying the program is too new to gauge hard numbers. The state also doesn't have figures on how often those reporting by phone are committing new crimes compared with those reporting to a parole or probation agent.
Program users back to life of crime
According to the MDOC, recidivism rates for Michigan's annual parole releases have gradually improved over the past nine years. A total of 36.4% of 2006 parolees were returned to prison within three years following release, a Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative report shows.
A Free Press review of offenders reporting by phone shows several are accused of committing recent high-profile crimes:
• Amaar Kadhim-Shudayer Al-Saady, 34, is charged in the killing of a Dearborn Heights man shot in front of his wife and children Sept. 14 during an attempted robbery at the family's home. Al-Saady was serving five years' probation for auto theft, uttering and publishing and receiving stolen property. He had reported by phone to the Chicago computer center eight days before the killing.
• Jewel Sanders, 36, of Canton was placed on three years' probation in April for running an unlicensed nursing home after an 80-year-old man died of complications from bed sores. She was ordered not to take anyone into her care and was placed on telephone reporting. Within weeks, she was advertising herself as a registered nurse and was hired to care for a disabled Farmington Hills woman, records show. She disappeared with the woman June 13, the day after she reported to the computer center. It took police three weeks to locate the disabled woman, who had been moved from house to house in Detroit. Sanders was sentenced to 22 months in prison. The judge, in sentencing her above state guidelines, noted her "continuing criminal activity and the risk she poses to the public."
• Luis Velez broke into a Waterford apartment in 2003 and beat a young woman inside with a tire iron. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and was released in 2008. He was placed on telephone reporting last year but returned to prison in January after he committed another assault.
• Eric Montanez, 21, of Pontiac was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and placed on telephone reporting probation Feb. 11, 2010.
Nine months later, he opened fire on two fellow drivers, shattering the car window and grazing the driver's ear with a bullet. He was convicted of two counts of assault with intent to murder and numerous weapons charges and is now serving a 17-year prison sentence.
'These are dangerous individuals'
Parole and probation officers who work in the field say the program is putting the public at risk.
Jones, the former probation officer in Detroit, said she supervised a lot of third-offense drunken drivers.
"I was telling my supervisor, I don't know what the heck these people are doing," she said. "In these kinds of cases, you've got to sit down with this person. Does she smell like alcohol? Are her eyes bloodshot? Is she doing the heroin nod?"
Of the 14,440 telephone reporting cases, 355 were repeat drunken drivers. They first complete 12 months of traditional supervision, but they don't continue random alcohol testing once they begin reporting by phone.
Jones and others point out that offenders are allowed to call in by cell phone, making it impossible to tell where the person is -- or even if it's the right person.
Prosecutors said they were shocked to learn many of the people they worked to put away are now phoning in their parole.
"These are dangerous individuals who need to be monitored -- that's why they're on probation or parole in the first place," said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton. "I think there is probably a place for this program, certainly for non-assaultive offenders, but not for repeat offenders, or some of the folks (the Free Press found) on this list."
Leyton said he would issue a memo to his assistant prosecutors to begin gathering statistics on recidivism rates for phone-in reporters.
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, who successfully sued the Corrections Department last year to force it to release the names of upcoming parolees, said her past experience as a circuit court judge tells her phone monitoring is a bad idea.
"Look, there are not many first-time nonviolent offenders who are on probation or parole," she said. "I understand that there is no room at the inn, and they are determined to reduce the prison population, but I think it's very dangerous the way the system is set up."
Experts who study the criminal justice system say it's a classic case of an agency struggling with a growing criminal population and dwindling funds. Michigan supervises about 55,000 probationers and 18,000 parolees.
"On the face of it, it seems to make sense, I can see the logic of it, trying to prioritize how they supervise," said Gregg Barak, a criminology professor at Eastern Michigan University. But he questioned the Corrections Department's decision to consider only the most recent conviction -- and not past offenses -- when placing offenders on phone reporting.
"One size does not fit all," he said. "They don't have any way of absolutely predicting that someone will re-offend, and you can't really know what an individual is going to do, but you can carve up their background, consider their age, where they're at in their criminal careers."
Contact L.L. Brasier: 248-858-2262 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Metzelburg had 17 felony convictions before being put on a parole phone-in system. He was still breaking into homes, however, and led police on a high-speed chase. / 2010 photo from WZZM-TVMetzelburg had 17 felony convictions before being put on a parole phone-in system. He was still breaking into homes, however, and led police on a high-speed chase.