Poll: Michigan voters strongly favor state prison reform

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.”

More coverage: Clean slate law for offenders could be boon for business

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.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 10/13/2015 - 10:31am
It could help greatly if we were to rid our state of private prisons and the relationship that exists between campaign monies spent on judges by these owners.
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 12:37pm
There are private prisons? Where?
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 1:07pm
Michigan House votes to let private prison house high-security inmates from other states By Jonathan Oosting | joosting@mlive.comFollow on Twitter on May 07, 2015 at 4:12 PM, updated May 07, 2015 at 6:29 PM "LANSING, MI — The Michigan House on Thursday narrowly approved legislation aimed to help one of the country's largest private prison companies bring out-of-state inmates to its shuttered facility in Baldwin. House Bill 4467, approved in a 57-53 vote, would allow The GEO Group Inc. to house Level V high-security inmates at the now-empty North Lake Correctional Facility................" But I think the point of Gene's comment was the outsourcing of prison services as a way to "save" money.
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 1:16pm
Oh, come on, Mr. French! An organization which actively promotes "prison reform" touting a survey that backs their position? Gee, I wonder what a survey promoted by Planned Parenthood or The Brady Campaign would also tell us? I'll tell you what, Go ask the business community this simple question: "Would you hire an employee who was convicted of a crime?" I'd be very interested to see the results of that survey. OABTW, you might want to drop the claim of "conservative" republicans backing this cockamamie scheme. When the common denominator behind those running this organization is a politician with a Liberty Score is hovering at 50%, that would be time to look for someone with a tad more "Conservatism".
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 3:45pm
I couldn't agree more. Bridge just hit a new low citing a poll bought and paid for by an advocacy organization and then making it sound like a referendum for prison reform. I'm getting pretty close to hitting the spam button the next time I see Bridge Magazine pop up in my email. This is just blatantly misleading journalism and can only be an effort to promote Bridge's agenda - the exact opposite of what Phil Power claims Bridge is about. Real sad.
Tracy Taub
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 5:03pm
Prison reform is long overdue. Not only is our current system costly, it is immoral. The entire system needs an overhaul, not just with sentencing guidelines, rehabilitation, and presumptive parole, but with the ticketing system that happens within prisons that artificially extend an inmate's time. The current system feeds the unhealthy alliance between private industry and all prisons, both public and private. Eliminating private prisons will not sever that alliance. While there are inmates who do warrant extended stays due to behavior, a whole host do not and have times extended to serve the prison/private industry relationship, a.k.a. slave labor. Our entire system seems to be a mere carry-over or extension of that shameful time in our history after the Civil War when the South created laws and penal systems primarily to keep the availability of slave labor intact. We can have a cost-efficient, rehabilitative penal system that also provides a better way of protecting citizens from those criminals who pose great risk to society. We need new brains, new ideas on what that system looks like.
Sun, 10/18/2015 - 3:03am
When those with the ability to consider current policy and the end result of costs along with the various levels of criminal activity and the typically associated consequences - our current system appears to be inconsistent, inefficient, and practically criminal itself. The legislature and state departments influenced by Bill Schuette and the police are concerned with power and social control- not what is best and most productive for the citizens of Michigan. The average person, in a clear majority want policies and candidates aimed at replacing the status quo with better ideas and people. Fortunately- when the legislature and current policies fail the people- in Michigan- there is a civic recourse- and the people can weigh in directly via a petition drive and voting on the issue at the ballot. Currently- such a campaign exists and is in the petitioning phase now- MILegalize - which is a comprehensive approach to cannabis law reform in Michigan and would fix the current approaches to allow the police to focus on real crimes with real victims and begin to create a considerably more sensible approach to the issue- based on the facts concerning cannabis and systems that have already proven functional for supply and distribution.www.MILegalize.com to read the language, donate, volunteer and to see where to sign the petition.
Linda Brauer
Fri, 11/06/2015 - 6:21am
Forcing people to be homeless and penniless, because they can't rent an apartment or get a job, breeds crime, which costs taxpayers. Restorative justice expects people to be part of the solution instead of just written off as the problem. Let's help people access mental health and substance abuse treatment, without having to be deemed a danger to him/herself or others. It would make communities safer and prevent recidivism. What we've been doing isn't working if 1/3 of adults now have a criminal background. Even if the Clean Slate bill passes, however,, drinking and driving will still be considered unforgivable, and prevent them from being able to get a felony expunged. Making amends should matter,.