Who goes to prison, and how long they stay behind bars, may change soon if Gov. Rick Snyder has his way.
The governor will unveil a package of criminal justice reforms Monday which, if enacted, could cut prison populations and slash the state’s prison costs, the highest in the nation.
Details of the reforms Snyder will propose aren’t yet public. But as lawmakers desperately look for ways to fund road repairs, criminal justice reforms could represent a ready source of savings, according to a study of Michigan’s system by the Council of State Governments.
Michigan spends about $2 billion a year on its prison system, devoting a bigger share of its general fund budget to corrections than any other state. In 2013, more than one in five taxpayer dollars went to Michigan prisons.
John Bebow, CEO of The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine, testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections in 2012 about the need to cut prison spending.
“The goal is to reach the best balance between crime, punishment and the public’s bill for prisons,” Bebow told the committee.
Bridge has examined the high cost of Michigan’s prisons, as well as potential policy reforms.
- Sentencing reforms. Michigan locks people up for longer than most states.
- Stop sentencing juveniles as adults. Between 2003 and 2013, 20,000 Michigan juveniles were jailed, imprisoned or placed on adult probation, a policy that has had negative implications for many youth. A recent Bridge series chronicled alleged widespread sexual abuse of juvenile inmates by adult prisoners in Michigan’s prisons.
- Increase mental health services to keep the mentally ill out of prisons.
- Release elderly prisoners who no longer are a danger. Moving terminally ill patients from prisons to a nursing home would move costs to Medicaid, offering some relief to the state budget. One elderly prisoner ran up more than $300,000 in medical bills in 2013 alone.
“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “Stop the recidivism rates – lower them.”
The reforms may find a receptive audience in the Legislature, which is looking for savings that can be used for road repairs.
The biggest opposition may come from Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is expected to run for governor in 2018 and who railed against a series of sentencing reform bills introduced last fall. Schuette’s influence “gutted” those bills, lamented the bills’ author, Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland. Schuette cited public safety concerns in letters he sent to legislators asking them not to vote for the bills.
Haveman, widely viewed as the state’s leading advocate for criminal justice reform, was term-limited out of office in December. In a radio interview in April, Haveman said he was encouraged by the proposals he believed would be included in Snyder’s criminal justice reform address.