Trying to come up with better corrections policy for Michigan is tough, because you have to balance two different factors – costs versus public safety – where a fact-based comparison is difficult.
On one hand, advocates for prison reform point out that the state annually spends an enormous amount on prisons – 20 percent (about $2 billion) of the general fund. This threatens to gobble up any money that’s left over (ha!) for things like fixing the roads.
On the other, prosecutors and others in law enforcement argue that cutting prison costs by reducing the number of prisoners through early release risks public safety.
That puzzle was front and center at a symposium Sept. 24 in Lansing, sponsored by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS), a non-profit prison reform group. The topic was reducing corrections spending by further decreasing the state’s prison population, which has gone from 51,454 in 2006 to 43,704 in 2013.
The symposium comes at a time when discussion about prison policy shows signs of moving beyond the “put ‘em in the slam and throw away the key” nostrum that dominated political discourse for years.
Stimulated by the realization that spending $35,000 per year per inmate doesn’t seem to be such a good deal for taxpayers, a bipartisan coalition is calling for a re-think.
A bipartisan push
Nationally, another prison reform group, “Right on Crime” is being pushed by conservative icon and former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and the Koch brothers. In Michigan, the prison reform coalition includes the right-leaning Mackinac Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, usually seen as on the left.
At the Lansing symposium, former State Rep. Joe Haveman, (R-Hollard) the legislature’s leading expert on corrections reform before he was term-limited out last year, pointed out that the old practice of locking criminals up and tossing the key “just didn’t work” in cutting crime. Pointing to remorseless gains in prison spending over the past decade, he pointedly asked, “So what are we getting for it?”
Currently, the main approach to cutting costs is to reduce the number of prisoners housed in the correction system. A Pew Charitable Trusts study in 2013 found Michigan inmates tend to serve the longest in all the 35 states studied, an average of 17 months more than their minimum sentences.
State Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) wants to develop a “presumptive parole” policy, which would release on parole inmates who have served their minimum sentences and also meet existing prison parole standards for being a low risk to society.
At present, meeting this standard does not automatically lead to parole, according to Barbara Levine of CAPPS, who adds that there are 1,900 prisoners with low-risk scores who were denied parole after completing their minimum sentences.
CAPPS estimates that a presumptive parole policy would over five years lead to the early release of 3,200 prisoners, saving the state around $75 million – nothing to sneeze at. Heise’s bill was approved by the House Committee on Criminal Justice and is awaiting a hearing in the full House. It is supported by Gov. Rick Snyder, but opposed by Attorney General Bill Schuette, who says early prisoner release is a “threat to public safety.”
In an article in the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, Mike Wendling, St. Clair County prosecutor and current president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, argues that comparing Michigan’s prison population to other states is misleading because we are “one of the most violent states in the country” and that Michigan prisoners, accordingly, are more likely to be violent and pose a greater risk to society if released.
Bridge reader Charles Richards in a post last week suggests the real question is, “Where is the data listing recidivism rates by how many years above the minimum (sentence) were served?” That question wasn’t directly addressed in the symposium, but needs to be answered when House hearings on Heise’s bill take place.
No perfect solutions
Advocates for presumptive parole also “have to face the elephant in the room,” according to Haveman. Inevitably, sooner or later, fairly or unfairly, somebody who is released on parole will commit a terrible crime, screaming headlines will follow, and lawmakers who support parole reform may face primary opposition for doing so. Haveman advises weak-kneed lawmakers to suck it up: “That’s just part of the job of governing wisely.”
It seems clear that the only certain way to get prison spending under control is to reduce the number of prisoners. Assuming there is evidence that on balance it is safe to release prisoners who have served their minimum sentences and show no signs of being a threat, adopting presumptive parole policy makes both economic and political sense.