Three prison reform ideas drawing bipartisan support

The prison reform movement in Michigan – and across much of the nation – is one of the rare issues in this contentious era that attracts support from individuals, public officials and organizations with a wide variety of agendas and political views.

Among the voices calling for changes to laws and practices that have made Michigan a leader in locking up its own citizens – at the cost of some $2 billion a year -- are Gov. Rick Snyder; the Detroit-based American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; the free-market think tank Mackinac Center, as well as Joe Haveman, a former member of the state House from Holland, one of the most conservative areas of Michigan.

Until he left office in 2015, Haveman, a Republican, led the prison-reform effort in the Republican-controlled state legislature, and he continues to advocate for change as the director of government relations for the Hope Network, a nonprofit organization that deals with behavioral health care and neuro-rehabilitation.

“Michigan is behind a lot of states in corrections’ reform,” Haveman said. “There’s so much to work on. One question is, ‘Do you have the courage to produce real reform?’ Recognizing we led the country in a lot of respects in toughening our corrections stance for the last 30 years.”

Michael Reitz of the Mackinac Center noted the odd bedfellows nature of the prison reform coalition.

“The Mackinac Center and ACLU, for example, don’t often agree on policy recommendations,” he has written, “but we have proudly partnered on” programs to end civil asset forfeiture and criminal intent legislation, which says the severity of punishment for a crime should be related to the defendant’s intent.

More coverage: The War on Crime, not crime itself, fueled Detroit's post-1967 decline

In a special message to the legislature last year on criminal justice reform, Snyder, a Republican, called for, among other things, addressing the root societal causes of criminal behavior, a theme often associated with liberal Democrats in the past

Here are three areas of criminal justice that have received widespread bipartisan support:

Prisoner re-entry: Easing life for former prisoners who have served their time can take many forms, such as “banning the box,” which eliminates from job applications questions about an applicant’s criminal past. That’s the law in some states and major cities. Detroit, for instance, bans city contractors from asking about prior convictions.

Sentencing: Michigan several years ago moderated its infamous “650 grams lifer law” that sentenced defendants to life without parole for possessing 650 grams (1.4 pounds) of such drugs as cocaine and heroin. There are many calls now to adjust sentences, especially for non-violent crimes and petty offenses such as writing bad checks, breaking into parking meters or parole violations. Seeking alternatives to prison for substance abuse and mental health problems is also gaining support.

The Mackinac Center notes Michigan has 3,100 crimes on the books, some of which, it says, are used to regulate the behavior of well-intentioned people and impose severe consequences on actions that most people don’t consider wrong. The ACLU supports the Michigan Legislative Council’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission, created by the Legislature in 2014, which is analyzing information on state and local sentencing and proposed release policies.

Elderly prisoners: It costs Michigan much more to keep people over 65 in prison than it does younger inmates, and there is wide agreement that most senior prisoners no longer present a threat to society. “We could save millions of dollars” by removing older prisoners from the Department of Corrections, Haveman says.

Heather Ann Thompson, the University of Michigan history professor and national expert on mass incarceration, says the nation is in the beginning stages of rethinking its prison policies.

“One of the most interesting things that has happened since I’ve been working on this is the bipartisan discussion for the need for criminal justice reform. And I am all for it. But I will say I’m also cautious about it and also feel the need to continually state that part one is agreeing that we need to stop this and end the crisis.

“Part two, though, is to decide what we do instead. What do we do to make sure that people don’t end up in these positions where they are having to sell drugs, or where they are no longer educated. We’re going to have to invest in our cities, were going to have to invest in our infrastructure, and sadly, that’s where a lot of the bipartisan support seems to fall away. You know, we don’t have as much support for taxation that would be needed to pay for schools, to pay for job training. And so I’m optimistic, but I’m also deeply cautious about how far the bipartisan moment will go.”


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Tue, 10/18/2016 - 11:31am
Heather Anne Thompson's comments make sense: will Michigan's legislature really raise the revenue needed to invest in the badly needed infrastructure projects and the concurrent jobs they provide? The accompanying Bridge article today mentions that one of the only options available to rural, under-educated residents of Michigan is to become a prison guard. Do legislators have the courage to cut the prison rolls that will result in hundreds or thousands of prison employees losing their jobs? Is it not perverse that the need to maintain prison employment continues to support the mass incarceration industry? In a not unrelated question, is it not perverse that the Michigan legislature has divested from public education - still not back up to 2007 levels of funding? The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well in this state. Is it not perverse that Michigan has the highest number of for-profit K-12 charter schools in the country? Why do our Michigan income taxes provide profits for K-12 charter corporations? Are their outcomes better? (No.)
Steven M Smewing
Tue, 10/18/2016 - 3:18pm
Anybody with knowledge of economics will 100% tell you that government jobs are a net loss to the economy. So, keeping prisoners just to keep prison jobs is illogical at best. Small government + more capital for the economy and the more the better. This does, of course, come with an asterisk. If cutting government spending in one area creates more spending in another area, well that is a net loss. That is the concern over releasing these people who are in prison. You could make an argument that if half the savings is put into support programs, that is a cut buy a cut that requires needed support systems after prison. The article said that there is no mood in Lansing to raise taxes. My answer is they would not have to. They would reallocate part of the savings, which is actually still saving tax dollars and increasing spending on support systems both.
Tue, 10/18/2016 - 1:49pm
Much of this I fear sounds better than it is. Elderly prisoners? Doesn't sending them out just transfers costs to another government pocket? Sentencing Reform? Petty crimes, shop lifting, check writing etc., cost real people, (in fact all of us), real money. How then, do you stop this behavior? How much of the prison population is really capable of functioning outside, in a normal socially acceptable manner even with the best training and intentions by all involved? Anyone with a brain or a heart wishes true reform to be possible, my own interactions make me wonder. What is reality?
Tue, 10/18/2016 - 9:48pm
I am concerned the approach described in the article is bound to fail. It is a solution looking for a problem, it talks about symptoms. Any time you try to fix symptoms you are missing the problem and the root causes of the problem. I would encourage those believing the current prison system is failing to start by describing the purpose of our prison system. Unless we have a common definition of what is to be delivered/results to be achieved everyone will be using their own image and they will all be different so any solution will not solve their perception of the problem/results. I would encourage them to look for the 'root causes' preventing the current system from achieving the desired purpose. This is not about the blame game, it is fact finding not fault finding. It is asking why so many times that they finally can't ask why any more, then they have found the barrier(s) that are preventing the desired results. Only then will people be able to cooperate in developing lasting solutions to the problems [for assuredly more than one cause to solve]. A good example is the sentencing, where the attention is on 650 grams, the reality is that no one has any guidance on the principles of sentencing [why do we sentence, what do we hope to achieve with a sentence]. I would like to see people asking why we have been establishing specific duration of sentence, why? When you know that then you are much more likely to address it in a way that better helps all understand the results sentencing is designed to achieve and the duration can better match the needs of the situation [crime/victim/communities]. Some sentences may be changed, but I will assure you the ACLU will make the same complaint about every sentence and for every criminal that fits their agenda. If all those, including the ACLU, are part of the purpose definition, the 'root cause' investigation, and the development of the principles for sentencing then the solution becomes a community solution that will address the vast majority of perspectives on sentencing.
Wed, 10/19/2016 - 8:45pm
Michigan's average sentence length is 52 months, in other mid-west states it is 30. When prisoners come up for parole, they are often denied because they are told they need some specific "programming" that for some reason isn't offered until they go before the parole board the first time or second time adding years to their already long sentences. This is VERY common. If we want to get a grip on the money being spent on this effort, there are some easy changes to be had.
Sun, 10/23/2016 - 5:39pm
Let's restore voting rights to felons that have served their terms and no longer are required to report to a parole officer. It's not right to continue punishing them if we expect them to reintegrate with civil society
Sherry A Wells
Wed, 10/26/2016 - 12:26pm
This is not a bipartisan issue, but rather a multi-partisan issue. The Michigan Green Party platform agrees and I'm sure the Libertarians as well. My concern is that corporations are making tons of money off the corrections system and they WILL lobby to keep their grubby paws in. It costs $30,000 yr. or more to house a prisoner yet we allot $7250 per elementary and high school student. Years ago, Montcalm Community College had a program linked to the local prison and had a recidivism of about 5% as I recall. Of course, the program was cancelled.
Mon, 01/16/2017 - 4:11pm

I am very concerned about young children are placed in solitary confinement for days on end. Older males and females also. This punishment is very debilitatating. Please dismiss this without delay.

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 12:03am

If someone is in prison at 65, chances are they committed a violent crime. So either violent prisoners will be included in said reform or it would be MORE BENEFICIAL to eliminate mandatory minimums and allow prisoners to accumulate "good time" credits.

Nadine McGraw
Thu, 07/06/2017 - 10:18am

These are great ideas to help reform our state's prison system. I recently learned of an online petition with great ideas as well I wanted to share with you that has some great ideas that lawmakers should consider. The URL is