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Peter Luke:
Eye on the Capitol

Insights into the inside workings of Michigan's state government from a veteran newspaper correspondent.

Capitol conundrum: Fewer inmates, same high costs

Round numbers can provoke course corrections because they are easier to understand and, if large enough, shock the system. Here are a couple: 50,000 and $2 billion.

The first is the inmate population barrier breached at the Michigan Department of Corrections in 2006. The department’s budget first exceeded the latter figure in fiscal year 2008.

But, after years of criticism for vacuuming up growing percentages of a shrinking general fund, significant progress actually is being made in reducing the number of felons incarcerated by the state. Not nearly as much progress, however, is being made to wring savings from the smaller inmate counts.

Parole policy alterations after Michigan’s inmate population peaked at 51,554 inmates in March 2007, more effective prisoner re-entry programming and fewer commitments to prison have combined to slash the prison population by 17 percent.

MDOC numbers chief Stephen Debor told a Senate subcommittee last month that the number of inmates behind bars in December 2011, 42,904, was the lowest since 1998. Why?

The 65.6-percent parole approval rate in the first year of the Snyder administration is the highest since 1990. Parole revocations, now at 174 per 1,000 parolees, are a record low in 24 years of recordkeeping. Prisoner intake of 8,750 in 2011 was the lowest since 1995.

As the population was hitting a record and the parole rate was 52 percent, some 17,000 inmates were serving beyond their minimum sentence. In December 2011, that number had been whittled to below 8,500.

On Feb. 9, Gov. Rick Snyder releases his 2013 budget proposal. So, as the administration appears committed to programs that reduce incarceration levels, what does it intend to do to save money as a result? Why, in fact, does Michigan continue to spend so much on its prison system even as it sheds thousands of inmates and shutters facilities across the state?

“That’s why we continue to ask the department, how we can close more than a dozen facilities, see a significant decline in population yet continue to have a per-day rate per prisoner in significant excess of those who we benchmark ourselves against in other states?” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on corrections.

When the inmate population was at its peak in fiscal 2006, there were 2.9 inmates for every department employee. In fiscal 2012, because the inmate population is dropping faster than the number of full-time equated positions, the ratio is 2.7-1.

If Michigan had Illinois’ ratio of 4.2 inmates per employee, DOC would have 5,000 fewer employees. And those employees are expensive. At $98,755 in fiscal 2011, the per-worker cost of salary, benefits, retirement and overtime was up a third from fiscal 2001.

Do the math and it adds up to $500 million — roughly the budget reduction being sought by those in the business community who would rather see the cash spent on education and local police.

Over the past decade, the percentage of inmates over the age of 50 has doubled to about 18 percent. The cost of per-inmate health care, $6,700 in FY 2011, is up 40 percent.

The Parole Board’s ability to release older inmates, however, is hampered by Michigan law that requires inmates to serve at least their minimum sentences. Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, who runs the corrections budget in the House, is open to having an outside sentencing commission study an overhaul. It’s unclear if Snyder will call for one in his March message on public safety, but Budget Director John Nixon has expressed support for sentencing change in the past.

One question a commission might answer is this: Is the public less secure if an inmate the Parole Board believes can be safely released at 100 percent of minimum is instead paroled after serving, say, 85 percent?

Sen. Proos says a “truth-in-sentencing” policy that requires serving the full minimum isn’t the problem, if DOC is capable of a 10,000-inmate reduction with the law in place.

Lawmakers are not going to risk political attack from the “early release” of felons if there is no guarantee of a significant budgetary payoff.

But without real, offsetting savings in corrections, spending more on police requires either more revenue or further reductions in programs that already been squeezed by the prison budget.

One of those programs is revenue sharing, which has been pared by billions over the course of a decade. As cities such as Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac retain their dubious reputations as among the most dangerous in the nation, the state, as a whole, has shed more than 3,000 officers.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Census, state and local governments spent $279 per capita on police protection in 2007 — and $225 on corrections. Michigan, however, was one of only nine states that spent more per capita on corrections ($236) than police ($233). Illinois, by comparison, spent $2 on police for every $1 it expended for corrections.

Among Big Ten states, Michigan had the second-fewest number of sworn state and local police per 100,000 residents: 190. Illinois had the most, 321.

Snyder’s State of the State speech vaguely addressed the need for “major improvement” in how the state and local governments protect the public. How he’ll do that will be laid out in his budget presentation and in a March special message on public safety.

But if, like last year, he asks for another $2 billion for the MDOC in his budget Feb. 9, whatever he has to say later probably won’t matter.

Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.

7 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. andrewpaterson

    A week ago I rode down the elevator with Detroit city council president, Brown, and he said that Detroit has more police officers than the “10 safest cities” in the country, but that almost 2/3rds of them are not “on the street.” As a part of the puzzle of public safety, what is the “ratio” of desk jobs to street patrol officers in other cities? Chicago or Illinois appear to have more police per 100,000 residents, is their ratio of desk to street patrol the same as councilman Brown says it is in Detroit?

  2. John Hargenrader

    Years ago, Phil Power published a set of 10 ways to reduce spending in Michigan. About half had to do with reducing costs on Prisons. Well done Peter. With the inmate numbers down, now we should push for reductions of meaning. As a Libertarian, incarceration for non-violent offenses makes no sense. And, for those non-violent with money, if they want out, they should be on house arrest with tethers at their own expense. If we put more folks out on Parole, they would have to pay the costs out of pocket to the local Parole Board.

    1. Joe

      Well said. Land of the free my a…

  3. David Waymire

    I think we need to select an Emergency Manager for the prisons. The EM for the Detroit Public Schools just waved a wand and cut teacher salaries by 10 percent. interestingly, the governor, who thinks universities, cities and schools should be able to cut their budgets by huge numbers, has elected not to do so with Corrections.

  4. Maria

    Great article! I think there are truly several ways that the MDOC can whittle down that horrific taxpayer burden. I don’t understand why they can’t bring back some form of Good Time back (like the 85% you suggested). My fiance is currently going on year 10 of his minimum 13 year sentence. He’s in there for extortion — a drug related crime. But he’s been clean and sober for ten years now. He’s written books, he reads Entrepreneur magazine, and is looking forward to getting out and going home. He’s got a job waiting for him, several (white-collar, professional) family and friends willing to help and support him, and most of all, ME. I make very good money and have a great career, no kids. Our home would be in rural Michigan, away from the city and temptation. He’d be spending his free time fishing, writing and enjoying the outdoors. Rather than have him remain in prison as a $150,000+ burden to taxpayers, I’d at least like to see the state allow him to finish his sentence at home on a tether. Heck, we’d even PAY for him to be out on a tether. We’d also take him to continual drug testing and counseling if need be. He’s a very, very low risk for recidivism. Out here, he’d be paying income tax and sales tax and contributing to society, not burdening one. His sentence was far too long for his crime. Believe me, I know he had to be in there. He says all the time that prison saved his life, and he’s humbly remorseful and regretful of his crimes. But enough is enough. He’s just sitting in there. They don’t have him in any classes, his “job” is shoveling snow and scraping ice off sidewalks, and the only real rehabilitation he gets is from me and his family and friends. By paroling him and others like him early on a tether, the state can shut down a prison or two. But no… that will never happen. All the COs who have jobs in those very rural northern cities will cry fowl and protest. No one wants to lose their jobs… I get that. Yet this spending is getting out of control. Time to find REAL solutions that work!

    1. Maria

      Sorry… that’s cry “foul.” Getting overly emotional over this issue. My feathers are ruffled. ;o)

  5. RM

    Google “length of sentence and recidivism”. What you will find is study after study which suggest that longer sentences do not reduce recidivism and several that suggest that length of sentence actually increases recidivism.

    There is considerable evidence that our long minimum sentences in Michigan are largely a waste of money.

    If we really wanted to get serious about crime prevention and cost efficiency, we’d compare and contrast Michigan with Canada. Michigan’s incarceration rate is 7 times Canada’s rate. When we figure out why our incarceration rate is so different than Canada’s we’ll probably also figured out why our corrections policies aren’t working and cost so much.

    Also, take a look at incarceration rates in Michigan by county. Surprisingly, it’s not the urban counties with the highest rates of incarceration, its the rural counties.

    The data and our correction policies contradict. If there’s rhyme or reason in what we’re doing in Michigan, I’m not seeing it.

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