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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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