Michigan residents overwhelmingly support criminal justice reform, and believe the state should invest in efforts to help ex-cons get jobs as a way to lower recidivism.
Those are the main findings of a poll released today by U.S. Justice Action Network, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice reform organization. The poll, by Public Opinion Strategies, was conducted Sept. 7-9, of 500 registered voters in Michigan. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.
Almost two-thirds of those polled said Michigan’s criminal justice system needs to be reformed, and 15 percent said it needed a “complete overhaul.” By an 87-10 percent margin, voters supported reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders, and reinvesting those savings in probation and parole systems.
“There’s a clear mandate for reform in Michigan,” said Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network. “These numbers are shocking. Twenty years ago, those numbers would have been flip-flopped.”
Decades of “get tough on crime” policies have led to a ballooning Michigan’s prison population. Today, state prisons and jails house more than 60,000 people, with the budget for the Department of Corrections eating up 20 percent of the state’s General Fund, which pays for most state services.
A Pew Charitable Trust study published in 2013 found that Michigan has the longest average prison time served of any of 35 states studied, with the state’s inmates serving 17 months longer than the national average. Michigan prisoners serve 125% of their judicially imposed minimum sentences.
“The whole thought-process behind the war on drugs and tough on crime, there was merit in those policies at the time,” Harris said. “But when one-in-three adults have a criminal (misdemeanor or felony) record, we’ve gone too far. There are far too many people in prison and we’re spending too much money to keep them there.”
Other poll findings:
- 84 percent of registered voters agreed with the statement: “We should break down barriers for ex-offenders so they can get jobs, support their families, and stop being dependent on government services that cost Michigan taxpayers money.”
- 90 percent support replacing mandatory minimum prison sentences that reduce the ability of judges to exercise discretion in sentencing criminals. Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences would allow judges to weigh the circumstances of individual cases.
- 53 percent said they would be more likely to support a candidate who supports criminal justice reforms, compared with 7 percent who said they would be less likely to support a candidate with those views.
Criminal justice reform has gained momentum around the country, as states try to reign in prison costs and acknowledge mounting data that long prison stints for nonviolent offenders do not necessarily make communities safer.
In Michigan, corrections reform is expected to get a major push this fall, with bipartisan support from groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative Republicans.
Laura Sager, executive director of the Michigan-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS), which supports prison reform efforts, wasn’t surprised by the poll’s findings.
“It's striking to see the strong parallels between a poll released recently by CAPPS and these results,” Sager said.
“Michiganders clearly believe spending billions on a broken corrections system just isn't working, and they aren't interested in small tweaks. Lawmakers should immediately take steps to adopt research-based policies that will save millions without reducing public safety, like the presumptive parole reform bill that passed the House recently with a strong, bipartisan majority" (Under presumptive parole, most prisoners who meet already established criteria for being a low risk to society would be released after serving their minimum sentence).
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he’s seen a shift in public – and legislative – attitudes toward criminal justice policies since he was sheriff in Eaton County more than a decade ago.
“For sex offense and especially pedophiles, if anything people have hardened their attitude,” Jones said. “But there’s been a difference in attitude over things like the sale of drugs. People see that as a nonviolent crime and (they are) not as likely to say throw away the key.”
Jones has sponsored several criminal justice reforms, including legislation that halts teens from being placed on the state sex offender list if they have consensual sex with an underage partner, if the two are within four years of age to each other. He is also a sponsor of a pending bill that would reduce the first charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, so teens won’t have to check a box on employment applications saying they’ve been convicted of a crime.
A comprehensive criminal justice reform effort almost became law last year, before the bills died at the end of the legislative session without action, partly because of the resistance of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Schuette could not be reached for comment Monday on prison reform legislation. The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, which has expressed concerns about prison reform efforts, declined comment.
Harris, of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said reform efforts have gained steam since then, and she predicts more reform bills will be introduced this fall in the Michigan Legislature,
Some legislative leaders such as Jones and Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, chair of the House criminal justice committee, support reform efforts that could reduce prison population, reduce recidivism and save the state money.
“We're spending billions of dollars to put people in prison when we could be spending that money on our kids, on our roads, or maybe even giving some of it back to the taxpayers," Heise told MLive.
“Things that were impossible last year are not only possible but inevitable,” Harris said. “Legislators who aren’t on board will have to answer to their constituents.”