Guest column: Michigan prison costs far exceed benchmarks; that should change

By Laura Sager/Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending

Michigan taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on prisons than public safety requires. How? By keeping people locked up far longer than we used to, than other states do and than is necessary to prevent recidivism. Every additional month, one person serves costs roughly $2,800.

In a new study, the Pew Center on the States reviewed people released from prison in 35 states from 1990-2009. Michigan stands out. 

Nationally, average time served for all crimes increased 36 percent; for Michigan it increased 79 percent. Nationally, the time served for assaultive offenses increased 37 percent; for Michigan it was 97 percent.


Most striking is that Michigan currently has the longest length of stay of all the states. In 2009, overall, Michigan prisoners served nearly 17 months longer than the national average. Those convicted of assaultive crimes served 30 months longer -- 50 percent above the national average and two to three years more than “tough” states such as Georgia, Texas, Florida and California.

Pew’s findings echo earlier research. In 2008, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found the average length of stay had increased 57 percent from 1981-2005. Accounting for the relative proportion of assaultive offenses, Michigan’s length of stay for people released in 2003 was 14 months longer than the national average. If the average time served had been one year shorter beginning in 1990, by 2005 Michigan would have had roughly 14,000 fewer prisoners. CRC attributed the increase to the adoption of sentencing guidelines, the elimination of good time credits and the decline in parole approval rates. 

In 2009, Council of State Governments researchers ascribed the “overwhelming difference” between the lengths of time served nationally and in Michigan to “the unique level of discretion available to the state’s parole board.”

That same year, the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending looked at nearly 77,000 Michigan prisoners released from 1986-1999. Time served increased after the composition of the parole board was changed in 1992. From 1993-1999, the new board’s policies required 2,229 more beds per year.

The increases were dramatically greater for homicide and sex offenders, even though the Michigan data, like that from other states, showed these offenders have the lowest recidivism rates. Fewer than 8 percent were returned to prison within four years for any new crime. Only 3 percent of sex offenders were returned for another sex offense; less than 1 percent of homicide offenders were returned for another homicide.

CAPPS concluded that if everyone denied parole for up to two years had been released when first eligible, it would have saved more than 2,300 beds a year. Yet the overall rate of parolees returned to prison for new crimes would have increased by only 1.7 points. Annual arrests would have increased by less than 0.4 percent.

Pew concluded that 24 percent of Michigan non-assaultive offenders released in 2004 “could have been safely released after serving between two months and three years less time behind bars.” The prison population would have been reduced by 3,280 at a savings of $92 million.  Arrests for violent crimes would have increased by 0.2 percent.

With Michigan’s corrections budget stuck at $2 billion a year, we must align our length of stay with national norms for all prisoners. We can require the parole board to release people who have served their minimum sentences unless there is objective evidence they are currently dangerous. We can restore the sentencing commission to assess current sentencing practices. We can bring Michigan in line with other jurisdictions and restore sentencing credits for good conduct and program participation in prison.

The evidence to support these changes is overwhelming. It’s time to muster the political will.

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Thu, 06/14/2012 - 9:42am
So just look at the article by the Eaton County prosecutor for a viewpoint on why Michigan has longer average sentences. Makes sense to me, especially when it is pointed out that we have 4 of the 12 most violent cities in the Country. Maybe we need a sheriff like Joe Arpaio.
Thu, 06/14/2012 - 10:32am
Good Lord please.... violent cities, agreed. First-time or non-violent drug offences--no jail time. This "war on drugs" is a horrible waste of taxpayer dollars. I would bet that if you were to look into privite prisons, the sentence times would be longer. Heck our politicians need that money from the privite prison lobby. Yes, there are elected represenatives in Lansing that would be happy to have people thrown into prison if it meant more money in their pocket. We should eliminate 40% of our police force. er a paramilitary force. They iused to serve and protect, but now harrass and intimidate. An officer has to prove he/she is worth their (union) wage, so arrest people regardless of the reason. And we need to keep these privitized jails full for campaign (and under the table) donations. Take a close look at who actually writes criminal laws now---it's not our legislature.
Thu, 06/14/2012 - 1:39pm
I don't know the solution, but when we are spending more to house prisoners than we are to educate children so that they can avoid the poverty to prison pipeline there is something wrong with the system. I agree that we have too many people in jail that should be out and working. But, There have been so many budget cuts that the support systems for recently released individuals is virtually non existent. Many cannot find employment, or find low wage jobs that do not generate enough income to live independently. They cannot find housing. They wind up in the same circle of family and friends that led to their problems in the first place.
Sat, 06/16/2012 - 1:11pm
It is truly amazing how short our memories can be. Barely 20 years ago, there was successful push for longer sentences, as well as the three strikes legislation, because of the crime repetition problem. You should spend just one night in the "lifers section" and see if you think they should be let out. A lot of them are in there for non-violent offenses. These are also the same places where there are 100+ prisoners for every guard due to budget cuts. Is it possible this was planned on a some level in order to justify privatizing the prisons by showing the state cant handle it? For some typeof kickback later? Reminiscent of Engler and the liquor control commission as well as Granhom and the state police headquarters? The taxpayers of Michigan get ripped off by the governors every few years. Also, the states you mention have a much less forgiving judicial system than Michigan. I would specualte that is quite a deterent to would be criminals knowing if they are caught, the penalties can very severe.