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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/02/capitol-conundrum-fewer-inmates-same-high-costs/
7 February 2012
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.