Correcting corrections would save money, but carry risks

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.

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Robert Shaw
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 10:53am
When you lock someone up they get tagged with a "record" that will make it harder for them to fit back into society when they are released. Do we want to have that as a consequence? We also incur a cost of ~$35k per year per inmate. What could we do with that $35k? How about some for retraining and some for other purposes? And for families does locking up a family member make their situation better or worse? Do we need to lock up dangerous people? Absolutely. Do we need to lock up non-dangerous people? maybe, maybe not Wiht the financial pressures we are experiencing almost everywhere we should be thinking of new ways to do many things and prison is just one of them.
Charles Richards
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 1:23pm
Mr. Haveman is only partially correct. Every decision has a certain probability of being successful; a decision with an 80% chance of success will, in the long run, have 20% failures. That doesn't mean it was a bad decision; it was a good decision that didn't work out 20% of the time. In any particular case of failure, it was a good decision that had a bad outcome. Mr. Havemen is quite right in saying that legislators should, in those cases, "suck it up." The crucial thing is deciding the quality of the decisions themselves. If the parole board makes a series of decisions that there is only a ten percent chance of an individual committing a violent crime and it turns out that twenty percent of them commit a violent crime, then the parole board has made bad decisions. Apparently, the parole board calculates a "risk to society" judgment for each prisoner; it would be very illuminating to know how those judgments have worked out.
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 6:29pm
It seems the only thing of interest is the cost of incarceration. I wonder why we aren’t hearing anything about why people are being put in jail. How can we be sure that releasing criminals or not jailing them is the best answer if we don’t talk about why jails were established or why the non-violent laws were written? What does having a felon isolated from the public provide? Does it prevent the public from being victimized by that criminal? Does jail provide a negative consequence for committing a crime? Does conviction and jail tell others what is and isn’t acceptable? By freeing the criminals with no mention of victims it leaves the impression that the person really responsible for the crime is the victim, those who trust in others and follow the laws. By all appearances the issue at hand is how to divert money so the politicians can spend it in more satisfying ways. By excluding the victims and potential victims the total cost of crime on our society is ignored and makes it appear only government spending matters. Why aren't victims, potential victims, and society rules part of this issue?
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 9:51pm
Too often prosecutors overcharge, then plead down to a more relevant charge. Too often counties dump their problems on the state rather than dealing with individuals they could deal with and likely have much better results. Prosecutors have no skin in the game, since the state pays for prison time, not the county. Alternative punishments, monitoring and corrective measures aren't being adopted at the county level. There are just two types of criminals: those we fear and those we're just mad at. When prison becomes the only option or the most likely option for those we're just mad at, this is not good government. The price taxpayers pay for prisoners goes way beyond $35k per prisoner per year. If they have families, they're likely on welfare during the incarceration period. Even after incarceration, the stigma of being an ex-con virtually guarantees unemployment, poverty and more welfare for the family. The primary lessons learned by criminals while in prison are how to become better criminals via everyday courses taught by other inmates. We have an unbelievable recidivism rate. Michigan's criminal justice system needs major reform and virtually none of the big problems that result in a $2B MDOC budget are being addressed by our legislators.