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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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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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