Lock 'em up and send taxpayers the bill

When Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette prescribed longer prison terms to cure the state’s crime rate recently, he was reaching back for an old belief based on the assumption that longer sentences mean safer streets.

His critics and independent researchers suggest his plan would do little to reduce crime -- but would drive up the cost of Michigan’s prison system.

“There is absolutely no evidence in the world to indicate this scheme would have any impact on crime rates,” said Barbara Levine, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending, which advocates reducing prison spending through alternatives to incarceration.

Schuette’s proposal, which his office touted as his “plan to make Michigan safer,” calls for a mandatory 25-year sentence for a violent crime perpetrated by a criminal who has committed three previous felonies.

“For too long, there’s been too much fear, not enough jobs, too much fear, not enough cops,” Schuette said in announcing what he called his VO-4 plan. “Too much fear means seniors can’t walk in the park.”

Longer prison terms for habitual offenders, he suggested, would lead to safer streets – and, presumably, parks.

It’s not the first time a Michigan politician has issued such a call. The Legislature passed a series of laws in the 1980s and '90s imposing mandatory minimum sentences now blamed for the state’s huge prison population.

 Previous coverage

Shifting prison politics: How GOP is getting smarter on crime

With a sober eye, a conservative reconsiders

An unlikely advocate for review of Michigan prison sentences

Smart, not tough: Reconsidering juvenile justice

Recent studies suggest longer sentences, don’t deter crime, but do cause a dramatic increase in the number of people behind bars. A 2008 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that “prison costs are blowing holes in state budgets but barely making a dent in recidivism rates.”

A 2005 study co-authored by Justin McCrary, formerly an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan and now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, similarly concluded that “increasing the frequency of jail or prison sentences or otherwise lengthening periods of incarceration has limited value as a deterrent.”

Many conservative politicians in Michigan and nationally are taking a second look at mandatory minimums and other laws that increased incarceration rates.

“I just don’t get where (Schuette) is coming from,” said Natalie Holbrook, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. “The pendulum nationally has swung the other way. To me, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like he’s coming into the game without much knowledge.”

Michigan already has a habitual offender law allowing judges to impose tougher sentences on those convicted of second, third and fourth felonies.


Schuette’s office did not respond to repeated requests from Bridge that he be interviewed for this story. At the press conference announcing his plan, he did not answer a question about how much his proposal would cost the taxpayers.

If approved by lawmakers, his VO-4 program would require an additional 17,798 prison beds over the next 25 years, a Corrections Department spokesman estimated. At the current cost of nearly $33,000 per inmate each year – and without adjusting for inflation – that would increase the state’s annual prison spending by about $585 million over the period.

State lawmakers appear to be in no mood to increase spending, particularly for prisons.

Schuette also called on the Legislature to spend $140 million of a projected $450 million budget surplus to hire 1,000 new police officers over the next two years. House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, is unlikely to support spending that much, since it is “one-time money for an ongoing expense,” his spokesman, Ari Adler, said.

As for Schuette's mandatory sentence concept, Adler said: “Any time you’re expanding spending, you have to be concerned.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

Senior Editor Derek Melot contributed to this report.

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Thomas W. Donnelly
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 1:21pm
Giving tax breaks to corporations is an expense to the state coffers.Extending prison sentences for violent offenders by the VO-4 plan would be costly. Add to that expense the suggested privatization of state prisons into corporate hands starts to smell like politics and money to be made by private enterprise. Is Mr. Schuette laying out the groundwork for running for governor in the future on a "Law and Order" platform? This idea might explain the motivation to promote the VO-4 plan. As a retiree looking at a new $1500. tax bill imposed on me to give corporations a tax break, makes me very wary of these new plans. Perhaps a long term plan to add more police officers and keep them there would work as well as lengthening prison sentences, since the crimes would be less likely to occur.
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 2:00pm
How many prison facilities have we closed in the last several years? Several. This is just another privatization scheme to distribute the wealth of MI taxpayers upwards to the corporate crony crowd. The man is just another corporate shill.
Thinking Clearly
Fri, 03/02/2012 - 12:25am
The man is ill informed about what he is doing. Living as close to Dow Chemical as Bill does, he probably thinks there is an endless supply of money to make new friends with.
Fri, 03/02/2012 - 9:25am
Who are the people who are targeted for this "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach to "making our communities safer" (two concepts that have been proven ill-advised and unsuccessful)? Many people who are committing violent crimes are mentally ill and/or have never experienced love and respect. Have you seen "The Interrupters"? The CRC Banner DVD review says "The year's most moving moment of cinematic grace follows a handful of "violence interrupters" who intervene in disputes in crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods largely through caring conversations in which they tell the "offenders" that they're worthy of respect and care." Let's interrupt cycles of violence and retribution which leads to more violence. Restore peace in our streets by resourcing programs of rehabilitation like the one described in this documentary.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 9:48am
Ok, so lets give them all hugs, who will be funding these hug fests? The tax payer, that's who.
Sun, 03/04/2012 - 5:51pm
Look people make mistake and just because they do do not through away the key. I guess the poelpe in the house fill they perfect do not judge cause it could be someone in ur family. Give a second chance and help rebuild the community back. What wrong bringing good time back. Well the ones be in a long let them out and give a chance stop holing pass the parloe date. God is good all the time .
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 1:12pm
This was very painful to attempt to read. I'm still not certain I was able to decipher the entire message.
Mon, 03/05/2012 - 9:46am
Incredible! Everyone here makes sense except the attorney general.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 10:54am
It's rarely a good idea to have law enforcement or prosecutors drive public policy. They're so invested in existing law and processes -- that's their job -- they're blind to alternatives. And cognitive dissonance is likely to drive them to staunchly defend bad or poorly implemented laws. Of course, many have political aspirations, which is yet another reason to ignore them ...
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 1:36pm
The Habitual Offender notice is a farce,I see priisoners in court on a regular basis and the first thing to get "bargained" away is the habitual. If your talking about people who have made a "mistake" and violated a law that gets them put into prison, tthey will do their time and get out and be a productive member of society. But those who have committed many crimes will not stop committing crimes unless a deterent is found. Evidentley time behind bars has not helped them. But what most people should know is that those with multiple offenses have plead down crimes several times before they start adding on habitual notices.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 5:09pm
Bill Schuette knows better. I know first hand that he is well aware of the evidence that shows what works and what doesn't. He just chooses to be a fear-monger because he apparently believes it will be good for his political career. I hope he's wrong.