An unlikely advocate for review of Michigan prison sentences

Joe Haveman is about the last person in the State Capitol you’d expect to advocate for softer prison sentences.

The 50-year-old Holland native is a conservative Republican legislator from a conservative Republican district, the kind of pedigree associated with the attitude of locking them up and throwing away the key.

“We tried that,” Haveman noted. “We used to be proud of that around here. But it didn’t work.”

Haveman, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections, is drafting legislation to create a sentencing commission to review the time served for crimes and whether the length of sentences impacts public safety. Numerous states -- including GOP-controlled states -- have turned to sentencing commissions in recent years in transitioning from being “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.”

Haveman may be an unlikely advocate for sentencing reform, but he is emblematic of efforts under way around the country that are reversing the politics of prison policy.

Corrections gobbles general fund

No one ever lost an election by being "too tough" on crime. But tight state budgets and falling crime rates may be making it more politically palatable to decrease sentences for nonviolent offenders.

In Michigan, prisons are chewing up a greater share of the state's general operating fund, growing from 17 percent of the general fund in 2000-01 to 22 percent for the current 2011-12 fiscal year. During that span, the prison ranks grew past 50,000, before falling in recent years to just under 43,000.

Michigan now spends almost $2 billion a year on corrections; by comparison, the state is spending about $1.2 billion on higher education from this year's general fund of $8.8 billion.

Haveman’s views on prison were shaped at Ridge Point Community Church, a Holland megachurch that helps recently released prisoners adjust to life on the outside. Haveman’s wife mentored several ex-cons, and Haveman mentored one. That experienced convinced Haveman that long prison sentences don’t always make the state safer.

“We had 51,000 prisoners (as recently as 2006), and most of these people are going to get out eventually,” Haveman said. “What you come out with are no job skills, no social skills. I don’t think they’re coming out as better people. That doesn’t make us a safer state.”

Haveman's agenda

The goal of a sentencing reform commission is to study the state’s incarceration policies top to bottom and identify changes that could potentially save money without compromising public safety.

“I would hope it would be a fresh set of eyes to look at offenses and sentences,” Haveman explained. “Do we need more diversionary programs? Do we try programs that will affect them the rest of their lives? Do we beef up education programs in prisons so they come out with skills?”

That’s the sort of talk that would have been scoffed at by Republicans as being soft on crime. Not so much today, however.

“I don’t know if it is bad politics,” Haveman said. “We’re starting to hear what is going on in Ohio, and (Gov. John) Kasich is more conservative than (Michigan Gov. Rick) Snyder.”

Kasich, a Republican, signed a sentencing reform bill last summer that shortened some sentences and helped some felons avoid prison altogether.

“It’s not a right or left agenda,” Haveman said. “It’s about getting people back as productive members of society rather than a drain on society.”

And if he’s attacked from the political right, say in a primary election this August, for his stance?  Haveman shrugs. “People see where I’m from (conservative West Michigan) and think I should be hardline on every issue,” said Haveman, who previously worked in real estate and commercial construction. “I’m not going to be one of those people walking around on egg shells worried about the next general or primary. I have one more term left (before he reaches the state’s mandatory term limit on House members). We’re all going back to the private sector eventually, so I might as well do what I think is right.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.


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Richard Rienstra
Tue, 02/14/2012 - 11:21am
Representative Joe Haveman stands up for justice. Thanks for his understanding and commitment to advocate for the necessary changes in spite of the political outcome. Joe has been informed by visiting and working as a mentor with those impacted by incarceration. Hopefully his constituency and the state will see the wisdom of his analysis and the challenge of his stance.
Maria (Lindbloom)
Tue, 02/14/2012 - 2:19pm
I just posted this comment on a related article about prison sentence reform. I absolutely agree that Michigan needs to reform prison sentences and provide a program for Good Time or alternative ways for prisoners to finish out their sentences (such as on a tether at home). My fiance had been sentenced for 13-50 years for an extortion crime (drug related) in which no person was physically hurt. Yet he was classified as a “violent offender” because they had found weapons on him. The woman involved in this crime even spoke out at his trial, stating that he seemed like a decent man with problems, and she didn’t want to see his young life ruined serving over a decade in prison. Since his incarceration, he has been completely sober and free of drugs. He says that prison has been the best thing for him. He’s spent his time writing, continuing his education, deepening his Christian faith, writing novels, reading magazines like Entrepreneur, and working out a plan for his career for when he’s released. He has a very supportive circle of family and friends. If paroled, released or sent home on a tether, he would be living in a comfortable home in northern Michigan to live with me (and near to his retired father). All of us are white collar, educated professionals who would help him, encourage him and support him. He has a job waiting for him, a stable home life and many who would ensure that he would not fall back into old ways. Everyone makes mistakes, and certainly those made under the influence of a drug addiction are ones that can be rectified and put in the past. He is not a bad person or a violent man. He has a good heart, a willingness to change his life around and a desire to become a functioning member of society. Why not let this man finish out his sentence at home? He has another 4 years left of his sentence, and he’s doing nothing but sitting in a cell, waiting to resume his life. In my humble opinion, he’s about as corrected as a prisoner can get in the system, and I’m sure any counselor/psychologist could attest to that. We would even pay for a tether system and any other measures needed to monitor him at home. Rather than burden taxpayers with another $150,000 price tag on the remainder of his sentence, let him come home to pay income tax, sales tax and become a contributing, working-class citizen of our state. He’s not the only one — there are many others I know of in the system that are either past their release date (due to lack of classes available necessary to be paroled) or because their sentences were far too long and too harsh for the nature of their crimes. Something needs to change. Throwing men behind bars for an unreasonable length of time and throwing away the key while the tax payers bear the cost is not benefiting anyone — least of all the prisoners. I will continue to voice my support of such measures, and hope to see some changes soon! I'm counting on Joe Haveman to continue to advocate for those changes, and will write letters to reach out.
Mrs. Bolton
Mon, 07/16/2012 - 10:55pm
Maria, I agree with you. My husband is in prison - his earliest release date was April 2010 - last year he had a deferment from the parole board while he had a "psych" evaluation ordered. The first was done by an RN then 2nd when we contested the 1st was completed by a social worker. They contradicted each other so badly. They called him by the wrong name in the report - referred to me as a teacher (I am a Bachelor's degree RN), stated that his mother was dead (she is not) all kinds of crazy stuff - we disputed the reports - but he was "flopped" again. Even though the required reports disputed each other and were not correct the parole board went with them. I agree that there are better things that the State of Michigan could be and should be spending there money on instead of keeping prisoners way beyond their out date. Lets use that money for education of our children to help prevent further crimes. Lets get some of the employees off the department of corrections "welfare system".
Tue, 02/14/2012 - 11:53pm
"I'm not going to be one of those people walking around on egg shells worried about the next general or primary. I have one more term left (before he reaches the state’s mandatory term limit on House members). We’re all going back to the private sector eventually, so I might as well do what I think is right." If every legislator viewed their office with this mindset, Michigan would truly have a democracy to be proud of.
John Q. Public
Wed, 02/15/2012 - 10:49pm
I wonder why legislators never have these "come to Jesus" moments until they're about to be term-limited. Wait--no, I don't. We could not only decrease the prison population by 10% easily, we could also reduce affiliated crime that comes with the pursuit of the money in play as a result, with one simple change: make marijuana possession of less than 100 grams a civil offense. A fine of $0.10 a gram seems about right. All the violence the media and law-enforcement/imprisonmemt complex love to portray as "drug-related" is no different than most other property crime--it's really "money-related." If the premium on marijuana prices associated with the risk of imprisonment were eliminated and its price reflected the actual cost of growing it plus a reasonable profit margin, you'd seldom again see a "drug-related" crime involving marijuana. Our penal code is full of "cures" far worse than the diseases they allegedly combat.
Ed Stielstra
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11:33am
Your approach is very much appreciated. We cannot look at whether something is good for the individual or good for society in this case because they are too entertwined. Incarceration too strongly tends to put people back on the street in a reduced state.
Sun, 03/04/2012 - 6:17pm
Help bring back good time. If they have have been doing right in prison mean as got there level down why not help them with something. Please bring back good time or if they do not have a lontime if they have 3 to something what wrong with terting them home instead keeping and taxpayer pay. Seem like u understand Mr.have an.
Sat, 07/28/2012 - 12:31am
Bring good time back, are prison need it bad.
Wed, 08/07/2013 - 2:56pm
We need to look at all the money going into supporting Non-Violent Offenders. When guidelines have been exceeded why are we the taxpayers paying $36,000 per inmate to house them? Our State is broke. Yet for these people that are capable of working and contributing to the community. Instead we house them, pay for all their medical needs, eye and dental treatments and medications. When the working population can't get that. Put them on tethers, which they will pay for. Let them contribute to the communities, Let them get their support from their Families. This State will become a ghost state serving only Prisons. Put our Police back on the streets, give our schools the funding they need to school our children. Put the money into schooling for Non-Violent offenders and the chance to become something, rather than just keep taking from the working people that pay taxes, hold down jobs, have families to support and still can't get their Medical needs met. Pass the Law to Release Non-Violent Offenders, and Keep the ones that have Violent Convictions, or any type of Sexual conduct cases and have ruined and hurt people. They should never have a release. Do what is right for your working people and put the money back into our state, not into Prison's. And do it quick before it's to late.
Diane Lee-Socia
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 12:42am
My son, Scott McCormick #260-948 Gus Harrison Correctional Facility, Adrian, MI is in prison. He has a brain disorder and is being treated inhumanly. They give him clothing that does not fit, has holes, and denied him socks. They placed him in a cell with no heat and a broken window. They then placed him in a cell with no power. They make fun of him and try to provoke him. One guard stood behind him while he sat eating and farted in his face. Then, told another guard and they laughed at him. They took his legal papers of his offense and passed them around. He writes qrievances and is denied due process. If you cannot not help - would you send this to someone who can. PLEASE, I FEAR FOR HIS SAFETY.