Texas conservatives to Michigan: Cut prisons now

Though their weather is very different, Michigan and Texas share many similarities. Geography and size notwithstanding, both states have a sizeable conservative majority in both chambers of the legislature, and a conservative executive. Both are diverse in terms of demographics and industry.

Michigan, which spends $2 billion annually on prisons, is also facing a looming fiscal issue that Texas struggled with seven years prior.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature faced a budget surplus of $6 billion, but with strong fiscal leadership they realized that continuing to build prisons could lead to an unsustainable situation once the bubble of growing tax revenues burst, as it soon did with the 2008 economic downturn. Decades of “get tough” crime and sentencing policy swelled prison populations, an effect that persisted even after crime rates started to decline. It was estimated in January 2007 that, should those policies persist, the state would have to increase capacity by 17,000 prison beds at a price tag of an additional $2.1 billion over the next five years.

This was the final straw for legislators in both chambers. Recidivism rates were unacceptably high given the massive investment underwritten by the Texas taxpayer. Put most simply, money was being wasted on a broken system.

The budget passed in 2007 for the 2008-09 biennium represented a major change in course for Texas criminal justice. Nearly $250 million was spent on bolstering community monitoring (such as probation and parole), expanding drug courts, and on residential substance abuse and mental health treatment programs for nonviolent offenders.

The Texas story is proof that common-sense, evidence-based reform is far from being “soft” on crime. The guilty are duly punished, victims are restored to the greatest extent possible, and crime rates continue to fall to levels not seen since 1968.

Low-level, nonviolent offenders who previously would be incarcerated were able to be safely monitored and treated in the community for a fraction of the cost. Capacity for in-prison treatment programs was expanded so that those who were incarcerated could complete these programs on which their parole was conditioned.

Still, detractors warned that having these lower-cost alternatives would lead to a notable spike in both violent and property crime. They worried that offenders who were placed in alternatives would continue their life of crime undeterred by these new “soft” policies.

However, the violent crime rate in Texas has declined nearly 20 percent since 2007. The property crime rate has fallen over 18 percent over the same period. Even as the number of parolees grew, new evidence-based practices such as graduated sanctions contributed to an 8 percent reduction in new offenses by parolees. Texas has managed to save billions of taxpayer dollars while better providing for the public’s safety.

Michigan’s current crime and sentencing policy reflects that of Texas prior to 2007. One of the key drivers of Texas’s pre-reform prison population was the under-reliance on proven innovations such as community corrections and actuarial risk assessments. Too many supervision and confinement decisions were based on one-off assessments and “gut feelings.”

Michigan, too, is fertile ground for reform. In 2012, monitored probation was assigned as a punitive sanction in just over 20 percent of cases in Michigan, though nonviolent property crimes made up more than 80 percent of convictions. Incarcerating nonviolent offenders not only squanders resources on those who can be monitored in the community (about $94 per day – the yearly equivalent to the gross wages of someone making $17 an hour), but it physically prevents the offender from maintaining employment, providing for his or her family, and – most importantly – providing restitution to the victim.

In addition to increasing its reliance on proven community corrections approaches such as problem-solving courts, matching risk and needs assessments with supervision levels, and swift, certain, and commensurate sanctions, Michigan must rein in its excessive sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders. According to a 2013 Pew study, the average prisons stay for drug offenders in Michigan is 2.9 years, compared with the national average of 2.2 years.

Moreover, Michigan’s average stay for drug offenders has risen by 74 percent since 1990. Most of these individuals are not drug kingpins and many are simply addicts. While prison does incapacitate offenders, research demonstrates that strategies such as drug courts are far more cost effective in reducing substance abuse and enhancing public safety as compared with simply warehousing an addict longer.

Unfortunately, the modest decline in Michigan’s prison population in the five years ending in 2011 has reversed, with the prison population ticking higher starting in 2012.

The Texas story is proof that common-sense, evidence-based reform is far from being “soft” on crime. The guilty are duly punished, victims are restored to the greatest extent possible, and crime rates continue to fall to levels not seen since 1968 while nationwide gains have tapered.

Since the reforms were passed, the state has closed three adult and one juvenile facility, representing appreciable savings. Let’s ensure that among the commonalities between Michigan and Texas is a continued commitment to right-sizing the corrections system so that incarceration is prioritized for those we are afraid of, rather than those we are simply mad at.

Attorney Marc Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a leading conservative voice on criminal justice. Derek Cohen is a policy analyst at the center and Right on Crime campaign, and grew up in Toledo.

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Comments

C Reed
Tue, 04/15/2014 - 9:33am
They also account for 40% of the executions in the US from 1976 to the present.
Tue, 04/15/2014 - 10:48am
You don't have to go to Texas to find successful drug courts. They are in Kalamazoo, to. I do get the point, however. Such alternatives are under-used in our state.