Schuette may need big taxpayer bucks to get tougher on crime

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?


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 01/26/2012 - 8:28am
I also heard that he wants to divert the State's recently identified "surplus" to hiring additional police officers. But hasn't the crime rate in Michigan actually fallen over the last three year?. Is Mr. Schuette positioning himself for a run for higher policitical office? What's this all about? It does not seem to be driven by any actual need or a clear strategic vision for the State.
Derek Melot
Thu, 01/26/2012 - 8:56am
Robert, You are correct. Schuette's proposal is to take $140 million of the roughly $400 million surplus and pay for 1,000 cops over the next two years. What he left unsaid is what happens after the state money runs out. Would local communities, already battered by state revenue-sharing cuts and property value drops, be expected to find the dollars to keep the new hires in place, or will the Legislature develop a permanent funding stream? Asked why the figure 1,000 -- as opposed to, say, 2,000, or 3,200, Schuette replied that he felt 1,000 was a "strong" number.
Thu, 01/26/2012 - 11:41am
Except for crises in some cities, public safety as a whole has been improving in Michigan. This proposal is all about Bill Schuette making a name for himself and delivering on promises to his political supporters, which includes many county sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, and corrections officer lobbying groups. Hiring more officers is not necessary and will actually hurt local governments which will have no way of paying for them once the surplus cash runs out. If the municipalities try to downsize these staffs, unions will resist and find some way to force taxpayers to chip in. Also, it sounds like the attorney general is going rogue on this one, as this plan does not have any public backing from the governor, who plans to announce his own public safety initiatives later this year. Schuette wants Snyder's job someday, and it's starting to show.
Thu, 01/26/2012 - 10:25am
Perhaps a list of questions to the prisoners would result in a common theme as to why they commited the crimes. Then changes could be made through the legislature process as a preventive measure
Allan Blackburn
Thu, 01/26/2012 - 11:31am
Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are the underlying theme to most of the people in prison or your local jails today. Since there is little done in the way of rehabilitation we have developed a system that is straight out of the American Legislative Exchange Council's agenda of building privatized prisons for the Corrections Corporation of America. This group is also providing slave labor in the form of having inmates manufacture items for pennies on the dollar. We not only have jobs being shipped to other countries, but we have a ready work force in the prison system where inmates work for .20 cents a day. Shareholders get wealthy off of crime, jobs are created when you build prisons, people that are undesirables; mentally ill, substance abusing can be incarcerated to provide cheap manufacturing labor and there are jobs created for the guards. If the current group continue down their current path of making Michigan a Right to Work state, you can get rid of well paying guard positions, paid by taxpayer monies and privatize the system. Privatized prison costs are as high or higher but, staffing positions pay low, CEO's and management make good pay, shareholders make out extremely well because of the; "get tough on crime laws" and immigration reform which allows states to incarcerate illegals. The stock prices have done very well on the back of the "three strike you're out laws" and immigration reform. There is also less accountability for the taxpayer money that pays for privatized prisons. People think that if something is privatized that they do not have to pay for it. The same taxpayer money pays the bills but there are several ways to allow cream to float to the top. Imagine the movie; "Shawshank Redemption" and you get the idea. This is really disturbing when you think of how the current policies are supporting an increase in crime to begin with. The state just pushed thousands of people out of the food stamp program, lowered the amount that the indigent can claim for their tax with the earned income credit, lowered the amount of time that you can collect unemployment, refusing to be involved in providing health care for many people that do not qualify for Medicaid and it is a set up for desperate people. When we closed the state hospitals we pushed mentally ill people in to prison. I can see why the state is getting ready for the next crime wave but at least they should be honest as to why this is happening.
Thu, 01/26/2012 - 7:38pm
There are two types of people in our prisons: those I fear and those I'm just mad at. I want the people I fear to be in prison as long as possible and I want much less costly alternatives for those I'm just mad at. Right now they're both costing Michigan taxpayers over $35,000 per prisoner per year. We're spending way to much on prisons, more per capita than nearly every other state and more than we spend for higher education, one of only a handful of states to do this. The reason for the high cost is the minimum sentencing for criminals we're just mad at. We need to not only shorten these sentences but also adopt alternative punishments, preferably punishments administered by our counties, not the state. Long sentences are supposed to be an deterrent. They aren't, for two reasons: 1) criminals don't know what the sentences are when they decide to do a crime; and, 2) they don't think they're going to get caught. Long sentences are supposed to reduce recidivism. Several fairly recent studies show that there's no relationship between length of sentence and recidivism. Studies show that the number one deterrent to crime is not length of sentence, it's number of cops. When the probability of getting caught goes up, the number of crimes drop. Lengthening sentences, building more prisons, and burdening taxpayers with another round of expensive criminal justice solutions that don't work are not the answers to our crime problems.
Fri, 01/27/2012 - 10:47am
If the 4th time offenders were sent to real prison where life is not about rehabilitating them for the 4th time maybe it would be a deterent but then 4th time offenders would have nothing to lose and their capture would be much more violent. The last thing a cop wants to face is a perp that has nothing to lose. It doesn't matter who makes money off the process. If a private company wants to offer a service to run a prison, maybe a little competition would slow the cost of government. There will always be a segment of the population that is going to choose crime and the easy route over education and hard work to survive in this world. The sooner we realize and identify the small percentage that rehabilitation will effect and concentrate our efforts on those, the better the system will work. Crime always pays till you get caught.
Fri, 01/27/2012 - 3:53pm
Since some of the projected figures go out 25 years, we are talking about some people who are very young right now. Why not use some of the surplus on intervention programs for high risk children so they don't go the way of crime?Prevention instead of detention! I realize that when an offender is released from jail, we don't immediately save 25,000 dollars, since many prison costs are fixed.I support the notion of release from prison after a minimum time is served if the crime was non-violent and the prisoner has shown good behavior while in stir. And some of the savings could be used for community based counseling for those released with a job training component to prevent recividism. Another writer suggested that years of detention are not good deterents for someone about to commit a crime.The would be criminal lives a fantasy of not getting caught. But also we must bear in mind all the social ills that create opportunties for crime.
Fri, 01/27/2012 - 9:42pm
Those who commit crimes are not aliens from another planet. It would seem like a simple way to reduce crime by having one of the univeristies come up with alist of questions for prisoners. This would reveal a commom theme as to why they commited crimes. Then legislature changes could be made that woulld lead to prevention measures by educaton changes in the schools
David J
Mon, 01/30/2012 - 10:07pm
I appreciated Allan Blackburn's thoughtful and comprehensive response -- while a "voice in the wilderness" of reactionary-dominated legislative "deliberation" on such issues, it is heartening to see this point of view in print. Any chance, Alan, of your running for state office in the future? :)
Fri, 05/11/2012 - 7:34pm
See when people sit in higher sit just do not care cause maybe there family member not in prison. Give people a chance they still human and make mistakes. Bring back good and may can save money.