Cut prison spending, CFM tells Senate panel

My written testimony for a meeting today of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections:

"Good afternoon. Thank you Senator (John) Proos and fellow members of the committee for the opportunity to speak with you today.

In 2008, the Center for Michigan organized a diverse group of business, nonprofit and public sector organizations all concerned with the exploding costs of prisons in our state. We formed a Corrections Reform Coalition out of one urgent, shared concern -- the ever-growing costs of corrections inMichiganwere overshadowing many other strategic priorities for the state’s future at a time when state budget resources were increasingly scarce.

Over the past several years, the coalition has met many times with the executive branch, members of the House and Senate, the leadership of the Michigan Department of Corrections and numerous other law enforcement and social service groups to learn about state prison spending and seek ways to reduce it.

Today, I am happy to acknowledge that considerable money-saving progress has been made in recent years.

For starters, the state prison population has decreased by almost 17 percent since reaching an all-time high of 51,500 prisoners in 2007. That’s 8,600 fewer prisoners today. At a current cost of just under $33,000 per year per inmate, imagine the budget headaches your committee could have faced today. Had the state done nothing, and had the prison population remained at 2007 levels, this committee could be facing something in the neighborhood of $300 million in additional general fund revenues needed to run state prisons this year.

Michigan has achieved these money-saving reductions in the prison population without causing a chaotic public crime wave some would fear. In fact, violent crime is actually down acrossMichigan. In 2009, Michigan had 497 violent crimes per 100,000 state residents. In 2010, we had 490 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. And, again for the first half of 2011, violent crime was down in all major Michigan cities reported by the FBI – Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Warren

Secondly, the Department of Corrections has achieved significant operational savings in recent years. Senator Proos and fellow members of this committee, as well as Director Dan Heyns and his management team, should be applauded for doing so. Most recently, under Director Heyns, the department announced:

  • The closure of Mound Prison in Detroit.
  • Competitive bidding of prison health care and and mental health care
  • Operational savings due to staff changes, prisoner clothing savings, technology savings and other cuts to red tape.

Collectively, these reforms could result in budget savings of $100 million per year.

All of that is good news for Michigan taxpayers as well as the many other important general fund budget priorities which suffer when prison spending expands.

But it would be premature for all of us today to stand up, cheer and declare prison spending reform in Michigan a “mission accomplished.”

The 2012-13 budget proposed by the governor last week once again expands corrections spending. This budget envisions spending just under $2 billion on the Michigan Department of Corrections in the next year. It’s a 1 percent increase over this year and an 11 percent increase over four years ago -- even as the prison population has continued to drop.

Worse yet, the administration envisions a nearly $50 million increase in prison spending in fiscal year 2014, which would push the corrections budget over the $2 billion mark.

I urge the committee to reject these prison budget expansions for four reasons:

First, the 2012-13 budget proposal accounts for 21.5 percent of the governor’s budget recommendation for 2012-13. Corrections was 17 percent of the general fund a decade ago and only two percent of the general fund a generation ago. In other words, prison spending continues to crowd out many other important budget priorities that are much more strategically aimed at increasing talent, quality of life, and overall prosperity in Michigan.

Business Leaders for Michigan is one of the partners in the Corrections Reform Coalition. BLM’s new Michigan Turnaround Plan points to prison costs as one of the key areas for ongoing reform in Michigan. Specifically, BLM calls for reducing Michigan’s total corrections costs to theGreat Lakes average. Here’s one measure of how far Michigan has to go to accomplish that goal:

In other words, reaching BLM’s goal could require significant additional prison spending cuts – as much as $500 million in additional annual savings.

Second, concerns remain about whether the department has done all it can do to provide efficient prison operations. This committee can and should continually challenge the department to:

  • Use best practices in process engineering with its large inventories and delivery of basic human needs such as food, medical supplies, clothing and the like.
  • Assure that all state prison inmates who are under federal deportation orders are moved to federal custody and off the state dime.
  • Continue operations of efficient, money-saving alternatives such as the Chelsea Boot Camp, identify best and most cost-efficient practices for housing and treating the large number of mentally ill prisoners.
  • Assure that Michigan Prison Industries meets its legislative mandate and is self-sufficient. As the Center forMichiganhas detailed in its publications, this has often not been the case in recent years. Taxpayers have underwritten MPI’s large staff and money-losing operations. .
  • Continue to innovate in the fight against prisoner recidivism. Once prisoners are out of prison, let’s keep them out.

Third, the department, the executive branch and the Legislature have not adequately addressed high labor costs in the prison system – high costs which have been documented for years by nonpartisan groups such as the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Center for Michigan and the Corrections Reform Coalition.

For example, the Corrections Reform Coalition provided to the governor’s incoming team in late 2010 a series of documented concerns about prison labor issues. Using the latest available data at that time, we pointed out that:

  • Prison system pay in Michiganwas 13 percent higher than that in neighboring Great Lakes states.
  • Taxpayer costs for health insurance for state employees was 34 percent more than the national average.

Despite those concerns, Michigan’s prison labor costs continue to rise. The budget proposal last week calls for $12.5 million in increased base wages and benefits for prison guards.

And fourth, there is still much Michigan may learn from other states’ recent innovative efforts to further control prison population -- and divert precious budget resources to other priorities. The Center forMichigan publishes Bridge Magazine twice a week. I encourage committee members to read today’s issue -- I’ve included copies with my testimony. Our report details how the national landscape is shifting from getting “Tough on Crime” to getting “Smart on Crime.” And in many places Republicans are leading the shift.  By our count, 26 states have recently passed prison reforms. Half of those states are led by Republicans.

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich led reforms that shortened the sentences of some felons and helps reduce the prison population by diverting some convicts to programs beyond prison walls.

Alabama, with a Republican governor and legislature, put limits on incarceration for probation violations; Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott signed into law an expansion of drug courts that diverts some drug felons from prison. GOP governors and legislators approved sentencing modifications in North Dakota and early discharge from parole in South Dakota.

The goal in all of these places is not to throw open prison cells and turn dangerous convicts loose on a vulnerable public. In fact, a recent sentencing commission in South Carolina lengthened prison sentences for sex crimes while shortening sentences for nonviolent crimes. The goal is to reach the best balance between crime, punishment and the public’s bill for prisons. It’s a business-savvy approach – not unlike the constant process review and re-engineering private-sector businesses undertake to maximize profits and shareholder value.

Indeed, continued re-engineering of the prison system in Michigan is another chapter in the theme of Reinventing Michigan.

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Tue, 02/14/2012 - 10:28am
This is a fantastic article, and I hope our state's government takes it to heart. While I don't have the insight or knowledge to speak to the budget/spend on administration and operating costs, I do want to address this point: "In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich led reforms that shortened the sentences of some felons and helps reduce the prison population by diverting some convicts to programs beyond prison walls." I absolutely agree that Michigan needs to reform prison sentences and provide a program for Good Time or alternative ways for prisoners to finish out their sentences (such as on a tether at home). My fiance had been sentenced for 13-50 years for an extortion crime (drug related) in which no person was physically hurt. Yet he was classified as a "violent offender" because they had found weapons on him. The woman involved in this crime even spoke out at his trial, stating that he seemed like a decent man with problems, and she didn't want to see his young life ruined serving over a decade in prison. Since his incarceration, he has been completely sober and free of drugs. He says that prison has been the best thing for him. He's spent his time writing, continuing his education, deepening his Christian faith, writing novels, reading magazines like Entrepreneur, and working out a plan for his career for when he's released. He has a very supportive circle of family and friends. If paroled, released or sent home on a tether, he would be living in a comfortable home in northern Michigan to live with me (and near to his retired father). All of us are white collar, educated professionals who would help him, encourage him and support him. He has a job waiting for him, a stable home life and many who would ensure that he would not fall back into old ways. Everyone makes mistakes, and certainly those made under the influence of a drug addiction are ones that can be rectified and put in the past. He is not a bad person or a violent man. He has a good heart, a willingness to change his life around and a desire to become a functioning member of society. Why not let this man finish out his sentence at home? He has another 4 years left of his sentence, and he's doing nothing but sitting in a cell, waiting to resume his life. In my humble opinion, he's about as corrected as a prisoner can get in the system, and I'm sure any counselor/psychologist could attest to that. We would even pay for a tether system and any other measures needed to monitor him at home. Rather than burden taxpayers with another $150,000 price tag on the remainder of his sentence, let him come home to pay income tax, sales tax and become a working-class citizen of our state. He's not the only one -- there are many others I know of in the system that are either past their release date (due to lack of classes available necessary to be paroled) or because their sentences were far too long and too harsh for the nature of their crimes. Something needs to change. Throwing men behind bars for an unreasonable length of time and throwing away the key while the tax payers bear the cost is not benefiting anyone -- most of all the prisoners. I will continue to voice my support of such measures, and hope to see some changes soon.
Tue, 02/14/2012 - 3:25pm
The Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI) also needs reform. The concept seems fine, but it's implementation leaves a lot to be desired. The first problem is that you can't get inside it. It's a program administered by the state in the counties but there's no local input nor oversight. There's just no way to get reliable information about what these organizations are doing or how they're doing. At best you get anecdotal information, not from the state but from prisoners' families. I'll give you two examples. A very likely to recidivate drug addict sentenced for use and sale was released from prison. MPRI placed him in a motel room wing populated by other ex-cons, drug addicts and alcoholics. His MPRI parole officer scheduled a visit in his office and drug test every other week at the exact same day and time. The parole officer never inspected his room. The parole officer never required proof that he was looking for work nor recommended any training that might lead to a job. The addict in the room next to him sold him heroine and his drug use was revived. He was able to pass the drug tests because he could easily schedule his drug use around the tests. His drug paraphernalia was in his room along with evidence of other parole violations. If the room had been inspected, available local sanctions, like enough time in the county jail to get sober again, may have had an impact. The narc across the hall from him bought heroine from him and he received another conviction, another sentence and a parole revocation that put him back in prison. The MPRI program for this drug addict wasn't a guarantee of recidivism, but pretty close. A neighbor's son was accused of 3rd degree criminal sexual conduct. He absconded and eventually got caught, convicted and received a long sentence. After release, this now nearly 50 year old man lived with his aged parents and went to the local community college to get a GIS degree, a degree that requires use of a computer and the Internet. His parents had a computer and he used it for his courses. The local MPRI parole officer found out about the computer and brought an expert in from Lansing to inspect it. They found nothing, but use of the computer and the Internet was a parole violation. He spent the next 10 days in the county jail, the computer was ordered out of the house and he had to drop any class requiring use of a computer. He's off parole now, but never finished the GIS program. It probably would have made sense to inspect his computer on occasion, but it never made sense to disallow use of a computer needed for classes. MPRI has a lot of promise, but unless it undergoes local oversight, allows for transparency, and allows for even a little common sense, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's currently a waste of money.