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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Bob Ellis
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:57am
I applaude this evidence based approach and look forward to the solutions and getting behind them to reduce our corrections budget but more importantly make our communiites safer and produce contributing members of society.
John Corvo
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:10am
I would also applaud an evidence based approach to looking at our justice system needs and responsibilities. But, I'm not hopeful. This process has been driven by hyper-emotional histrionics and fraudulent data. This issue tends to be used to demonize anyone who approaches it in a rational fashion, painting officials as soft on crime and unworthy of office. I am not seeing that kind of thinking within today's administration and our state representatives and Senate members.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:22am
Grover Norquist? I thought he'd finally shut up for a while...remember the 'shrink government til we can drown it in a bath tub' stuff? Funny how he didn't mention marijuana...
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:53am
I had the same reaction as Rick--Grover Norquist? I also wonder how Norquiat missed the non-violent drug offender issue and mandatory minimums. But I see how this is consistent with shrinking government--privatization. Norquist wants us to be like Texas. Will he be asking us to reinstate the death penalty? I have a joke about Texas: You can't use the insanity defense in Texas because you have to be insane to live there.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:02pm
Grover Norquist? Great essay...except it is missing the particulars of how this is accomplished ? I know in Texas execution is one method used in criminal management. Michigan was the first state to outlaw the death penalty...state sanctioned killing. Will this go the way of union protections in our state? Done through voice acclamation in the Legislature? We need to know more!!!
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 4:14pm
As I recall the prohibition of the death penalty is in the state constitution.
Mike R
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:10pm
Grover Norquist is one of the most Macchiavellian political opportunists of the past twenty years (we continue to suffer from the "No Taxes" pledge he blackmailed most Republican lawmakers into signing). That having been said (and yes, I DO feel better now), his comments are exactly correct. I'll even forgive his failure to give credit to the Democrats who have been advocating precisely the same approach for decades but have been stymied by chest-thumping "tough on crime" Republicans. (Now, if we could only be sure that Jase Bolger's involvement isn't just his way of ensuring he doesn't go to prison for his election fraud schemes. Sorry, I meant "alleged" election fraud schemes.....)
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:38pm
Norquist states "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." How disingenuous of a remark. Norquist's last sentence should read "But the disappointing results produced by our hugely expensive criminal justice system I and other conservatives created and perpetuated can no longer be ignored." 'Bout time he figured it out! Just too bad so many lives have been destroyed in the process, not to mention the burden imposed on society and taxpayers.
Duane B.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:34pm
Even though I feel Grover Norquist has been an ideologue of the worst sort, there is some merit in some of the things he suggests. However, given the miserable performance of some of the people he cites as his collaborators his credibility suffers even here. In general, I agree with the comments of Mike R. above. I would like to add an additional observation. Appropriately, a great deal of attention gets focused on the costs of incarceration. Some attention also gets focused on policing, crime detecting and prosecution and the general operational costs of the criminal justice system i.e. courts etc.. However, very little attentions gets focused on crime prevention. Here I am not speaking of the classic "liberal" social solutions (although some of them do work). Rather I am focusing on the substantive research on crime reduction solutions completed under the auspices of the "Omnibus Crime Control & Safe Streets Act of 1968". A lot of very serious research pointed out that it is cheaper (and better societally) to prevent crime than to detect, prosecute and punish crime. There are very many low cost, simple methods that can dramatically reduce crime. The massive economies and savings available can hardly be overstated. These methods include relatively humble measures such as neighborhood watch and "Operation Identification", Crime Prevention Bureaus (educate citizens on how not to be a victim and so on). However, SWAT teams, flashy hardware, armored vehicles, and all sorts of para-military gear are a lot more attractive to some members of the law enforcement community. But the day-to-day grunt work of real crime prevention is not as "sexy" and therefore often is overlooked. Similarly, building codes and active programs of fire inspection prevent fires and are much more cost effective than expensive new fire apparatus and new fire stations.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 4:21pm
The best crime prevention is establishing a high expectation of being caught, prosecuted, and appropriately dealt with. Severely punishing a small percentage of offenders is penny wise, but pound foolish.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:38pm
Interesting, I've always maintained that Bridge and C for M is really a leftwing, government employee union echo chamber parading as nonpartisan advocacy group,. Then you throw Grover Norquist, (the left's most hated human being for not only his opinion but the courage not to back off them) into the mix. I was momentarily stunned and confused, but after reading the comments I feel much better. Sorry Mike, the "war on drugs" which has fed the prisons has been largely a creature of the moderate right and moderate left to left sides of the spectrum, particularly pushed along by the government employee unions (guards, social workers etc.) and the gun control crowd. The libertarian/right (Norquist) has never really been there.
Mike R
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 2:23pm
Matt: I don't disagree that Libertarians have never been a part of the war on drugs, but those are not the people Norquist is citing or with whom he is allying himself. Those people are all classic conservatives or neo-cons. Let's not forget that Richard Nixon began the drug war, Ronald Reagan ramped it up, and the ensuing Republican administrations championed it. The left, including the moderate left, has never been an advocate except to recognize that drugs are bad. The war on drugs has been a right-wing issue from start to finish, with the left merely acquiescing (to our discredit). I have no idea where you get the idea that the war on drugs has been "pushed along by the....gun control crowd." I'd like to know your evidence. But that's a side debate that doesn't really advance the discussion. It appears we can agree that there are too many people incarcerated for too long at too high a cost for offenses that could and should be better handled through prevention, treatment, or diversion programs. If left and right can now agree on the best ways to alter course, we can make real progress on this and many other issues. I see real opportunities here.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 4:05pm
Every president, presidential candidate, (and almost every establishment senator and governor) from Johnson, Carter ..definitely Clinton as well as all Republicans used drugs as a campaign tool to whip up the law and order, soccer mom, muddled middle public. Hippies, crack babies, gang bangers, Narco terrorists, it is just too easy for them to help themselves. And yes the first "Assault Weapon" ban was in supposed response to the Crack turf wars, not school shootings. But Schutte aside, things are shifting for a variety of reasons, fiscal and humanitarian and I am glad to see it.
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 6:57pm
I would never trust Grover Norquist. He and his cronies are up to something. He is on the board of the NRA - if there was more gun control, there wouldn't be so much violent crime and prisons wouldn't be so full. There are prisons that are privatized but that get money from the government (our taxes). More guns make more crime make more prisoners. This makes groups that privatize richer. Look deeper - who will really benefit from his suggestion!
Tue, 07/22/2014 - 11:22pm
A fine essay from a long time Michigan resident.. wait, Grover Norquist is not a Michigan resident? Oh, THAT Grover Norquist, the one with the long, well-established reputation as an anti-government partisan, that one? Given his reputation, everything that Mr Norquist says should be taken with large helpings of salt. It is not clear that he has the well-being of the state, let alone its citizens in mind. What support he does bring to Michigan politics is that available through the dark money channels, the very process that already bedevils and corrupts our legislature. The real work of prison reform and of an improved justice system will have to be done by Michigan residents working together, not from policies advanced by corporate factotums for the self-interest of his patrons.
John S.
Wed, 07/23/2014 - 10:03am
It's important to evaluate the message and not the messenger. There's a lot in the message to like. Why throw away taxpayer dollars doing things that don't work or don't work very well? There are a lot of stake holders in the criminal justice system who benefit both financially and politically from the status quo so change (moving to evidence based policies) won't be easy. It's also important, however, to critically evaluate the quality of the studies that are the basis of such "evidence." Some of these are no doubt advocacy, based on case studies, and not very objective.
Elroy Jettson
Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:28pm
The only way to get any bang for our buck is for prisoners to actually produce something during their lockup. texas pea farms come to mind, just sayin!
Thu, 07/24/2014 - 8:17am
I can't help but think this has something to do with the emerging and ever-expanding "testing and monitoring" market. There has to be an angle (er "opportunity") for this guy to be involved.
Rita Casey
Sun, 07/27/2014 - 12:22am
There are proven methods of prevention - and no, I don't mean the threat of arrest, conviction, and incarceration, which have little effect on stopping crime. For example, take the problem of drugs, which has had a large role in filling Michigan prisons: The Rand Corporation, back in 2005, ( did an excellent cost-effectiveness analysis of prevention of different methods of reducing illegal drug use. Of the 4 methods they analyzed, providing treatment for drug addiction was significantly more effective, and vastly cheaper in public dollars, that controlling entry of illegal drugs, stopping drug movement within the US, and local domestic enforcement. Yet treatment remains unpopular, and is too often seen as being "soft on crime".
Sun, 07/27/2014 - 12:59am
Does holistic reform of the prison system to ensure Michigan taxpayers get the results they deserve including feeding the inmates maggots at least twice a day? When Gov. Snollygoster and his REPUBLICAN-controlled state legislature decided to privatize the COME BACK STATE'S penal system, they promptly fired all those expensive JOB KILLING union workers. In their place they hired a 'free market' food management company called Aramark Correctional Services of Pennsylvania which has been been feeding their incarcerated customers a nutritious diet of small soft creatures with no arms or legs which are usually found in old meat and dead bodies. Grover and Gov. Snyder, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, House Speaker Jase Bolger, Chief Justice Robert Young, and Department of Corrections Director Daniel Heyns all have a vested interest in the Pure Michigan maggot market.
Sun, 07/27/2014 - 11:54am
Grover?? Zero cred in my book and you certainly lowered your standards to reprint anything this backwater propagandist says or does....
Jack Lapinski
Mon, 07/28/2014 - 2:08pm
I was pleased to see that a majority (?) of the comments showed surprise that a Magazine of your quality would let someone of Norquist's ilk to put his far right trash in it's pages.
Tue, 07/29/2014 - 9:41am
I would be curious to know if Mr Norquist has any personal experience in the Criminal Justice system. My suspicion is that he does not based on the tone of his article that indicates that he is only citing data that is easily obtained by anyone with a computer. As a Michigan State Corrections Officer for over 20 years, I have yet to see line staff input in public policy included in "studies" that purport to be credible, and are instead, based on information sourced from prison bureaucrats.