Editor's Note: This post, originally published at 8 a.m. on Jan. 26, was updated at 1 p.m. the same day, 10 minutes after
Bridge received new estimates from the Michigan Department of Corrections. A summary of the original estimates provided by MDOC are in this updated post.
"AG asks Michigan to spend big to get tougher on crime."
That headline isn't in your papers and news websites this morning. Attorney General Bill Schuette held a Wednesday press conference to unveil his "public safety initiatives" for 2012. At no point did he actually say he wants to spend big on prisons.
But that could be the practical effect of his agenda over time -- specifically his call to create a new sentencing regime. He called it VO-4, in which repeat felons who commit a violent offense for their fourth conviction would automatically get a sentence of at least 25 years in prison. "Four strikes and you're out" it has been dubbed by some.
"Budget buster" could be another accurate label.
Michigan Department of Corrections analysts scrambled to put a price tag on Schuette's proposal. They caution that these numbers are preliminary and they issued revisions Thursday morning, but here's what they came up with:
Assuming stable annual crime, arrest, charging and plea bargaining practice, court disposition, and sentencing frequencies and patterns (other than for the proposed statutory change), there would be a need for 17,798 additional prison beds within 25 years (after which stability would be reached) under the 4 strikes 25-year mandatory minimum sentence part of the proposal.
Of the nearly 18,000 additional prison beds needed:
- 7,350 would be needed for affected future offenders whose contemporaries now receive non-prison sanctions for the specified crimes upon their 4th+ felony conviction, and
- 10,448 of the additional prison beds would be needed for affected future offenders whose contemporaries
now receive minimum prison terms shorter than 25 years for the specified crimes upon their 4th+ felony conviction.
About 300 of the additional prison beds would be needed by the end of the first year for affected future offenders whose
contemporaries now receive non-prison sanctions.
The shortest minimum prison term is 1.2 years for offenders who already receive a prison sanction for the specific crimes as
their 4th+ felony conviction, so the additional prison bed impact for those offenders would not begin until the second year following passage, when some of them would then begin to remain incarcerated because of the 25-year mandatory minimum rather than leaving the prison system.
So, how much would all this cost?
Well, details remain sketchy, but potentially very expensive. The Michigan Department of Corrections has changed these estimates a couple of times in the past 24 hours. And when reporters asked Schuette how many prisoners he was talking about, all he came up with was a quip: “lots and lots.”
But 300 additional prison beds next year would cost taxpayers an additional $10 million just next year with costs rising every year thereafter. And 17,800 new beds 25 years from now would cost an additional $585 million per year (without adjusting for inflation).
Last night, MDOC suggested they’d need as many as 58,000 new beds over the next 25 years to handle Schuette’s proposal – the equivalent of
opening one or two new prisons every year. Based on those earlier estimates, such prison expansion would have resulted in $20-65 million in new costs next year and from $500 million to $1.7 billion in new annual costs in the year 2037.
Whatever the added taxpayer costs of Schuette's plan, let's put them in a bit of context:
MDOC has about 43,000 prison beds right now. Michigantaxpayers now spend almost $2 billion on the Corrections Department. That's almost a quarter of the state general fund budget -- a troubling ratio that has steadily grown over the past decade as almost every other budget in state government has been repeatedly cut. Michigan's current general fund budget is slightly under $8.5 billion.
During his press conference -- at which he was surrounded by law enforcement officials, including Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, and county prosecutors -- Schuette talked not of bed counts or budget increases, but of fear and the specter of violent crime.
"For too long, there's been too much fear, not enough jobs," he intoned.
The contrast between a pricey new get-tougher-on-crime proposal and the events of the previous day could not be more stark.
On Tuesday, Business Leaders for Michigan unveiled the 2012 edition of its ongoing "Turnaround Plan", which includes a goal of getting Michigan to the "Great Lakes average" on corrections spending.
To reach that figure, prison spending has to go down, not up. And by down, we mean way down. A rough estimate by the nonpartisan Citizens
Research Council is a decrease of $400 million from current spending. In BLM's world, corrections is a $1.5 billion or $1.6 billion affair -- not an
ever-growing budget beast fueled by thousands of new prison beds.
It's well-known that BLM and its leader, Doug Rothwell, are in good standing with Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration. The governor makes
his formal budget presentation for the 2012-13 fiscal year on Feb. 9.
BLM is a member of the Corrections Reform Coalition, a group of business, local government, education and nonprofit organizations organized by the Center for Michigan. The Corrections Reform Coalition has advocated for smarter and less expensive prison policies for the past three years. On Tuesday, the Corrections Department announced the current prison population -- 42,904 -- which Gongwer News Service noted was the smallest prison population since Michigan adopted the "truth-in-sentencing" get-tough-on-crime approach in 1998.
So, this week in Lansing, you have a Republican governor, elected with the help of lots of middle-of-the-road voters, in a position to push for lower prison spending. And, suddenly, you have a Republican attorney general, who left a secure seat on the Michigan Court of Appeals to run for AG and who has assiduously courted the GOP base, calling press conferences to tout a "tough on crime" legislative agenda that would mean significant new taxpayer costs for prisons.
So, what's the price of fear? And what are you most afraid of?
Are you more worried about a sense of chaos on the streets?
Or are you more afraid of a prison budget that crowds out other important state priorities, from low taxes to funding for healthy communities, good schools, roads or a safety net for law-abiding citizens in need?