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Getting tough, and smart, on crime in Michigan

With Michigan’s correctional system consuming more and more taxpayer dollars every day, the time is right for a key fiscal question: “How can we get the most from our investment in public safety?”

As a lifelong conservative, I’ve been proud to call myself tough on crime and support long prison sentences for violent offenders. But the disappointing results produced by our hugely expensive criminal justice system can no longer be ignored.

That’s why I’ve joined with Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, Jeb Bush and other conservatives in a national movement called Right on Crime. Rather than accepting the status quo, we support a criminal justice system that reflects fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, support for crime victims and reliance on solid evidence to determine the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds.

How does all of this relate to Michigan?

Michigan has a sprawling correctional system that now operates on an annual budget of about $2 billion. Accounting for almost one-fifth of the state’s general fund, that enormous sum is burdening Michigan taxpayers, especially at a time when communities are struggling to stabilize after the long recession.

The Michigan Department of Corrections reports that it spends about $34,300 to incarcerate a single inmate for a year – more than what other Midwestern states spend. And, because of parole board discretion and complicated state sentencing guidelines, Michigan offenders serve the longest prison terms, on average, of any in the nation.

The huge expenditures for imprisonment might make sense if the state was earning significant public safety dividends. Sadly, that’s not the case. As any Michigan resident who watches the nightly news can attest, several of the state’s cities are afflicted with alarmingly high crime rates.

Given the glaring imbalance between Michigan’s criminal justice investment and public safety returns, conservatives can no longer sit idly by. We must challenge ineffective public spending on prisons just as we have sounded the alarm on expenditures for education, healthcare, and other government programs.

Reform momentum in state

Fortunately, a strong corps of Michigan state leaders is doing just that. Led by Governor Rick Snyder, a team that includes Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, House Speaker Jase Bolger, Chief Justice Robert Young, and Department of Corrections Director Daniel Heyns are committed to holistic reform of the system to ensure Michigan taxpayers get the results they deserve.

Since May 2013 these leaders have been engaged with the Council of State Governments Justice Center in an exhaustive review of Michigan criminal justice data, a process that has included input from the hardworking folks on the front lines. Working with the Michigan Law Revision Commission, a bipartisan group of legislators and public members, this comprehensive analysis has led to a package of policy options for discussion and review. The result will be solutions that improve public safety while making the criminal justice system more effective.

At Right on Crime, we’re heartened to see this process unfolding in Michigan, and, given what we’ve witnessed in other states, we’re optimistic that the we can be tough on crime and tough on criminal justice spending. Texas, Georgia, Ohio and South Dakota are among states that have relied on facts and careful analysis to develop and enact – often with near-unanimous legislative support – fiscally sound, common sense criminal justice reforms.

The results of those states’ efforts have been encouraging, for taxpayers, victims and offenders. Texas is a shining example. In 2007, projections suggested that 17,000 new prison beds would be needed by 2012, at a cost to Texas taxpayers of $2 billion. Conservative legislators took the state on a different course, and expanded community-based options such as probation, accountability courts and proven treatment programs—all for a fraction of the cost of expanding prison capacity.

Since then, overall crime has dropped 25 percent, and the state no longer needs those 17,000 prison beds. In fact, Texas closed three prisons and its correctional facilities are now below capacity.

No one would accuse Texans of being soft on crime, but leaders there realized that yesterday’s correctional approach – anchored in a heavy reliance on imprisonment, even for those who could be more effectively sanctioned in other ways – was a losing strategy.

Michigan is now making the same discovery. I look forward to the day when it reaps its just rewards.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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