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Opinion | Legislators would learn a lot by visiting Michigan prisons

As Lansing prepares itself for yet another turnover in legislators to run state government, allow me to offer some unsolicited advice.

Joe Haveman
Former State Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland) represented House District 90 from 2009-2014. He now serves as the director of government relations for Hope Network and is a member of the board of directors of Safe & Just Michigan.

Above all, new legislators should break out of their party paradigms and focus on the big solutions. Serving as a state legislator can be a very rewarding experience if you focus more on problem-solving and less on politics. 

It’s no surprise to many that I recommend starting your problem-solving with criminal justice reform. Criminal justice is one area where both sides agree on the need for change. These aren’t insignificant issues. Even with a reduce prison population over the past decade, Michigan taxpayers spend over $2 billion annually for our Corrections Department. This represents over 13 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

Lawmakers owe it to us to see firsthand how those tax dollars are being spent. Surveys indicate that the public isn’t convinced that public safety dollars are best spent on prisons. According to 2018 report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice, eight of 10 Michigan crime survivors surveyed support shorter prison sentences for people who participate in rehabilitation, mental health, substance abuse, educational or vocational programs. In addition, 64 percent support shorter prison sentences and increased spending on prevention and rehabilitation programs rather than long sentences.

Second, legislators need to meet the people who live and work in our prisons.  We’ve been successful at bringing down the state’s prison population, but there are still more than 33,000 people incarcerated by the state. Since we are devoting such a considerable portion of the state’s budget to their incarceration, it only makes sense to visit them to see whether the programs we fund produce the results we want.  Please remember that 95 percent of the men and women in our prisons will someday come home. 

Meeting people who are incarcerated may also lead legislators to rethink policies that keep thousands of people incarcerated on long or indeterminate sentences. Our state retains one of the harshest sentencing structures in the nation. Unfortunately past legislatures did away with earned “good time” policies that rewarded good behavior with reduced sentences. We may be incarcerating fewer people, but the ones we do are staying for a longer time. A decade ago, the average prison sentence length was 8.9 years; now, it’s 11.7 years.

This trend toward people serving longer sentences goes against current research. Studies show that felons tend to grow out of criminality by the time they reach middle age. These findings suggest that in keeping people locked up for decades until they die, we are not making our communities safer — but we are leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars each year.  Furthermore, a recent Safe & Just Michigan report found that 82 percent of people support restoring a “good time” credit system. Sixty-eight percent agree with creating a “second look” policy that would give people an opportunity to prove they should get a second chance after spending several years in prison. These are proposals that find a wide backing among voters.

We can approach crime and safety more thoughtfully and increase public safety. It begins with taking the time to get to know the people inside our prisons. The nonprofit FAMM encourages legislators to do this as part of the #VisitAPrison campaign. When I visited a prison as state representative, it was a transformative experience.

When legislators speak with incarcerated people and corrections staff, they will learn what is working — and what is not. They will better understand the pressures that short-staffed officers are under, and the frustrations people face when they can’t get the educational classes that are required to qualify for parole. Most of all, they’ll come to see that people in prison are just as real and human as their other constituents.

In an economy with a shortage of qualified employees, now is the time to transition from punitive criminal justice to one of retraining and rehabilitation. Let’s try focusing on restoring lives of both victims and offenders, and investing funds in crime prevention rather than wasting your tax dollars on over-incarceration.

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