Pew study says Michigan spends cash it doesn't have to on prisons

Michigan almost doubled the average time behind bars for its prisoners between 1990 and 2009, says a new study by the Pew Center on the States released Wednesday. While the trend mirrored a national one, Michigan's practices on longer incarceration for all types of crimes was particularly notable, and expensive, the report's authors stated.

"The takeaway (from the report) is there are more effective ways to control crime (than longer prison stays)," said Ryan King, research director for Pew's Public Safety Performance Project.

Pew calculated that Michigan's trends cost the state almost $100 million in a single year (2004) by holding prisoners longer than necessary to provide public safety.

"The year studied in the Pew report was 2009. Due to the unique things we did that year, we believe Michigan’s time served numbers were skewed in this report," said Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan. "However, we do know that time served by Michigan prisoners is higher than the national average.

Other key findings in the Pew report

* Annual state spending on prisons now tops $51 billion (in Michigan alone it is nearly $2 billion) and the state prison population across the nation has spiked by more than 700 percent since 1972.

* "Tough on crime” policies adopted in the past generation have resulted in prisoners staying behind bars 36 percent longer than in 1990.

* The nationwide cost of these longer sentences is some $10 billion, including roughly $5 billion in longer sentences for nonviolent offenders.

* "For a substantial number of offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime.”

*Michigan has some of the toughest incarceration rates in the nation. Among inmates released in 2009, Michigan had the longest average time served in the country. Since 1990, average time served in Michigan has grown 79 percent (the fifth-fastest growth rate in the nation).

* For just one year -- 2009 -- the total Michigan taxpayer cost of keeping offenders in prison longer than we did a generation ago was $472 million.

"This is due to our distinctive sentencing structure and Parole Board authority. When the Council of State Governments studied Michigan in 2009, they found our prison commitment rate was lower than the national average. This also may be a contributing factor to our longer length of stay. That is, we send fewer people to prison, but when we do, we send them for longer periods of time," Marlan added.

Michigan was tops in the states studied on time served by those released in 2009, with an average span of 4.3 years. Michigan nearly doubled its average length of stay for violent offenders, from 3.9 years to 7.6 years over the span.

But the state's imprisonment push extended well past violent felons. A Pew breakdown of three states -- Michigan, Florida and Maryland -- "found that a significant proportion of nonviolent offenders who were released in 2004 could have served shorter prison terms without impacting public safety." Between 1990 and 2009, the average length of stay for property crime felons increased by 35 percent; for drug offenders, the average increased 74 percent.

"For substantial numbers of nonviolent offenders, there's no gain with longer terms," King said in an interview Tuesday. "The narrative arc is one of significant costs. How much return in public safety are you getting with these additional times?"

Barbara Levine, head of the Michigan-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said the new Pew results are not surprising.

"We looked at nearly 77,000 people (in a 2009 report) who were released between 1986 and 1999. We found that the sheer length of time served has no relationship to success on parole," she said. "Keeping people an extra year or two after they served their minimum sentence had very little impact on preventing recidivism but cost taxpayers $1 billion."

The overall parole rate in 2011 was 65 percent, Marlan said, with 2012 figures running at a somewhat lower level. The highest annual parole rate was 68 percent in 1990 and the lowest was 47 percent in 2000.

Marlan said MDOC figures show Michigan's average dropping already from a 2009 level of 62 months to 56 months for 2010. King said the state's numbers would vary from Pew's figures because Pew used a multi-year averaging system to "smooth out the spikes" that can result from using single-year results over a long period.

"More states are putting changes in place and addressing time served," King said. "In Michigan, between 2005 and 2009, you see a leveling off. Growth from 1990 to 2000 was sharper than growth from 2000 to 2009."

Corrections Department chart on historical parole rates by type of offense

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan took issue with the study, arguing that many of the recommendations in the report already are in effect in Michigan -- and that Michigan's violent crime rate is 28 percent higher than the Midwest average.

"Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys and the Michigan public do not see the release of large numbers of assaultive and career criminals into our streets and neighborhoods as a sensible way to improve the safety or economy of our state," said Larry Burdick, association president, in a press release.

A significant issue not addressed by Pew was the exact relationship between prison populations and expenditures. In Michigan, for example, a reduction in the prison ranks of about 8,000 in recent years has not led to any significant change in the Corrections Department's budget.

Pew's King said, however, that Michigan's budgetary circumstance is not unique:

"In New York state, that's another that had significant declines in prison population, but the budget situation was similar in not seeing any tremendous declines."

A joint House-Senate committee was able to trim $9.4 million from the Corrections Department budget for 2013, with a plan that came in at $42 million below what Gov. Rick Snyder had originally requested.

Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph and head of the Senate's appropriations panel on corrections, had sought an additional $27 million in cuts, but did not succeed in convincing his Capitol colleagues.

Under the legislatively approved plan, a wide range of operational savings and reforms for implementation would be made, yet legislators continue to be confounded by ever-growing personnel costs in the prison system -- a problem repeatedly pointed out by the Corrections Reform Coalition of business, nonprofit, education and other public sector groups formed by the Center for Michigan in 2008. The 2013 budget reported out of conference includes $36 million in “economic adjustments” above this year’s budget -- with most of those expenses going to salaries, insurance and retirement costs for prison staffers.

While the end result is slight savings over the current year, the prison budget is still far higher than watchdogs want. The group Business Leaders for Michigan, for example, has stepped up pressure to reduce prison spending because every dollar spent on the prison system is a dollar that cannot be invested in BLM’s highest state budget investment priority: higher education.

 Previous Bridge coverage on corrections policies

Cost of '4 strikes' plan drops, still means millions more for prisons

Shifting prison politics: How GOP is getting smarter on crime

Are private prisons Mich.'s cost savior?

Capitol conundrum: Fewer inmates, same high costs

Of cons and condiments: Prisons cut costs in dimes and dollars

Smart, not tough: Reconsidering juvenile justice

An unlikely advocate for review of Michigan prison sentences

Prison industries: plenty of staff, losses

Senior Editor Derek Melot joined Bridge Magazine in 2011 after serving as an assistant editorial page editor, columnist and reporter at the Lansing State Journal, where he covered state and local issues extensively, earning awards from the Associated Press and Michigan Press Association. The Oklahoma native moved to Michigan in 1999.

CFM President John Bebow contributed to this report.

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Thu, 06/07/2012 - 11:18am
We need to make a clear distinction between criminals we fear and those we're just mad at. Criminals we fear need to be incapacitated, and prison, although incredibly expensive and not the only way to incapacitate, is a very effective way to incapacitate. We need, however, to develop other ways to deal with those we're just mad at. This group includes most non-violent offenders: the drug addicts, the drunks, the embezzlers, the white collar criminals and a bunch more. Warehousing these criminals at $35,000 per year per prisoner just doesn't make sense, it's ineffective and a huge wast of money. A local example comes to mind. She embezzled from the local DDA and did it for several years. The locals were really ticked at her and encouraged the judge to give her a long sentence. She robbed us with a pen, not a six-gun. We were really mad at her, but we didn't fear her. I think her minimum prison sentence was 3 years. Times $35,000 a year, her incarceration cost Michigan taxpayers at least $105,000. Since her family paid back most of what she stole, the cost of her incarceration far exceeded the net loss from her theft. We wanted justice, but didn't get it, since the "justice" cost us far more than the crime. As an alternative, she could have been shoveling snow for 3 years off the sidewalks of the DDA business members she stole from. She could have been sweeping those same sidewalks when the snow wasn't flying. She could have been mowing the communities' public lawns, picking up compost stacked on the curbs, any number of activities that would constitute very visible and very satisfying restorative justice. Instead, we jailed her and paid a fortune to do it. She robbed us with a pen and in retaliation, we shot ourselves in the foot. We do stupid things like this all the time and it is way past time for some major reforms to our criminal justice system.
Thu, 06/07/2012 - 3:47pm
One thing that should be pointed out is due to some very questionable rulings by the courts in Michigan, the prisoners live better than almost any prisoner anywhere else in the world. At the end of every governors term, there hundreds of requests for extradition to Michigan by prisoners from across the country due to luxurious accomodations. Then they want to cut staffing of the prisons where there is already a ration of 110 prisoners to one guard. I wouldnt want to work there in a environment such as that.