Prosecutor: Public safety should be top priority in prison reform

Michigan’s Constitution states, “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security and protection.” As Michigan continues to look at reforms in important areas of the criminal justice system, public safety and security must be the first priority.

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) is already a national leader in using innovative methods and programs to develop the best possible corrective solutions. Michigan has prudently reduced its prison population from 51,454 in 2006 to 43,704 inmates in 2013. Of those remaining, approximately 70 percent of those inmates are still in prison for violent offenses.

The reduction of 8,000 inmates indicates Michigan is ahead of the curve in this respect; we have recognized what other states are just beginning to recognize ‒ that limited bed space needs to be reserved for the worst offenders that are detrimental to public safety.

When examining Michigan’s prison population, it is important to know that only 10 percent of felons are sentenced to prison initially in Michigan. The other 90 percent of all felons are sentenced to jail or diversion programs, such as probation and/or special programming. Because Michigan sends only its most violent or habitual criminals to prison, its sentences tend to be longer than those from states where the commitment rate may approach 40 percent.

More coverage: Michigan prison reform gaining momentum in fall session

Under our current sentencing guidelines, many of these violent criminals are not going to prison. For example, in 2013, 235 people who were convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder were not sent to prison.

Contrary to a continuing misconception, Michigan prisons are not clogged with drug offenders. MDOC numbers reveal that only 7.7 percent of Michigan prison beds are used for drug offense violators. Most of those are habitual, major controlled substance trafficking crimes.

The 2013 MDOC Statistical Report confirms that in 2013 less than .03 percent of Michigan prisoners were marijuana law violators.

The bottom line is that our current guidelines make it nearly impossible for nonviolent offenders ‒ and even many violent offenders ‒ to go to prison.

Comparing Michigan’s prison population to other states must be done with a care and understanding that Michigan is unique. We are one of the most violent states in the country, with four core cities that see more violent crime than most others in the nation. What works in another state may not work here. We are an outlier when it comes to these statistics and comparisons.

Recent U.S. Department of Justice-Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics placed Michigan’s violent crime rate at 16.8 percent above the national average and 39.6 percent higher than the average of other Midwest states. Michigan has a violent crime rate that is a staggering 55.8 percent higher than Ohio.

We must also recognize that our state lost over 17 percent of its law enforcement force over the past decade. This directly contributes to the unfortunate reality that Michigan is a violent state which solves only 31.6 percent of its violent crimes compared with the national average of 46 percent. We have a 40 percent murder clearance rate compared to a national average of 64 percent, according to the FBI.

Accordingly, when you are forced to lock up murderers, rapists and other violent criminals, they will stay in prison much longer than a state which uses the majority of their prison allotment for auto thieves, safe breakers, drug offenders and other serious, but “nonviolent” criminals.

The public and private sector efforts that help reduce recidivism are important. Local options are part of the solution. Treatment courts, truancy and community stabilization energies can be part of the answer.

But we cannot prioritize dollars over public safety. Doing so erodes the integrity of the system that we’re trying to improve. We cannot compromise the confidence of our victims of crime who continue to go through traumatic experiences by releasing prisoners who threaten public safety.

Michigan’s prosecuting attorneys will continue to partner with Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature in efforts to review our sentencing provisions and to protect our public.

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.

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Thu, 09/24/2015 - 9:49am
",,,Michigan sends only its most violent or habitual criminals to prison,...." -12 year old commits a violent act of murder. Life in prison. Mother of 12 year is then convicted of child abuse (father too). Does this child need to be in prison? -What percentage of the prison population is mentally ill? If the State was providing the needed mental health services in our communities, how many would need to be in prison? Lock up the ones who REALLY need to be in prison, provide the appropriate services to the rest.
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 10:28am
Lets separate the defendants who we are are mad at from the defendants we are afraid of.
Charles Richards
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 4:17pm
This is an excellent, well-reasoned article. Mr. Wendling says, "We must also recognize that our state lost over 17 percent of its law enforcement force over the past decade." This is a crucial contributor to the size of our prison population. Counter intuitive as it seems, under policing results in a higher crime rate and a higher prison population. The significantly below average clearance rates contribute to our high prison population by reducing the potential consequences of committing a crime. Contrary to the liberal assumption, the Noble Savage is a myth; people are not virtuous innocents corrupted by society. Rousseau was wrong; Hobbes was right. The best, most effective way of reducing our prison population is by adding substantial numbers of policemen in the four core cities that Mr. Wendland mentioned, even, if necessary, by using state funds.
Joe Haveman
Thu, 09/24/2015 - 9:28pm
Same message for 30 years. We had the most violent cities then as well. If it didn't work can they at least try to have an origional thought.
Kim Patrick
Fri, 09/25/2015 - 1:45pm
How will the release of thousands of parolees impact the Michigan Parole Reentry Initiative? Are communities going to be flooded with homeless parolee's?
Dave Murray
Sun, 09/27/2015 - 10:27am
Well, the system is flawed and needs change. Look at these excerpts from the September 26 article in the Sunday Detroit News by Nolan Finley: Had Karl Vinson’s attorney asked just one more question, the Detroiter might have spent the next three decades living a productive life, working and raising a family. Instead, he’s been behind bars since 1986 for a crime he could not possibly have committed. Vinson, thanks to a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last week, has his best chance at freedom. But the cell doors aren’t open yet. The fact that they’re still closed on him is an indictment of a criminal justice system that too often favors expediency over accuracy, is indifferent to defendants who are poor and black, and is so determined to cover up its own incompetence that it won’t admit mistakes, even when presented with conclusive evidence of innocence. The case in 2009 was brought back to Wayne Circuit Court, where instead of embracing the chance to get justice right, prosecutors and the judge offered ludicrous theories, including this one: the mother may have had sex in the same bed with another man, after her daughter was raped and before the police arrived. The conviction stood, and the decision upheld on appeal. So Vinson’s champions went to federal court, where last week the judges ruled that “no reasonable fact finder would have found him guilty but for constitutional error.” That error and the willful defense of it cost an innocent man the best years of his life. It’s a cautionary tale affirming why we must fiercely protect our civil liberties. What happened to Vinson could happen to anyone. Yes, one man. Despite Prosecutor Wendling's and others' often merited frustration with the inhibition of imprisonment, the need for careful, just, and honest sentencing and prison releases remains. And the fact there are men and women who have been ready for release based upon their own growth, maturity and remorse also remains. No one is asking that violent offenders not be imprisoned. Yet, the vast majority of prisoners will be released regardless. Most will not die in prison. Statistics do not tell the story. Let's have the conversation about the need for reform. And let's talk about human beings, victims, law enforcement, a culture that promotes violence even as entertainment, the need for men to mature and take responsibility, the family, and the costs to us all.
Thu, 10/01/2015 - 11:57am
Michigan needs the Death penalty brought back, modeled in a timely execution similar to, or more severe than the state of Texas. Recidivism is zero when they dont breathe. Right now, the only people authorized to use deadly force are those people in immediate danger who act to defend themselves. What of those who cant? They die. Thier family is torn apart forever. Why should thier killers get to live, while killing in self defense is ok?
Wed, 10/07/2015 - 2:02pm
With respect for our judges, our prosecutors, and those employed in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), I find fault present through our State's justice and prison system. In the late 1990's, State leaders closed the States mental institutions moving most of these mentally challenged individuals into the state's prisons. This mixture created intolerable environments but no one seemed to care. Then the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan pushed for and got mandatory sentencing introduced into the state's justice system. Judges could not longer grant mercy in individual cases. You did X, you are sentenced to Y. Then the same Association pressed for elimination of "earned time" whereby prisoners could ever so slightly reduce their prison time--by several days or several weeks. The Association won this means by which prisoners exhibiting good behavior could ever so slightly shorten their prison time. Michigan was one of the few states to adopt this practice. Overcrowding resulted to the point where some prisons were housing 50% more than they were built to accommodate. To soften the public's view of the state's prison system the prisons were renamed "Correctional Institutions" and the prison guards were renamed "Correctional Officers." Internal efforts to prepare prisons for reentry into society were reduced to a minimum. Even after the prescribed prison time has been served, nearly 25% of these individuals have had their parole denied one or more time. Michigan's justice and prison system now ranks as one of the most punitive system's in the Western Hemisphere. This is not only sad, but shameful. And their is no end in sight. I know too much to be hopeful. Too few stand up, consider the facts (human and financial), and call for action.