By Pat Shellenbarger/Bridge Magazine contributor
As he looked around at the mix of politicians and social activists about to announce their support for reducing the number of people in Ohio’s prisons, Mike Brickner was struck by a revelation. He and other officials of the American Civil Liberties Union Ohio chapter had found common ground with politicians spanning the entire political spectrum.
“Oh, my gosh,” Brickner, the Ohio ACLU’s director of communications, said some months later, “if you can get the ACLU and the most conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats — people who usually can’t agree on anything — to come together, then you can get some momentum built.”
That momentum resulted in sweeping legislation overwhelmingly approved by the Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich last year, pulling back on years of “tough on crime” laws that had caused massive crowding in the state’s prisons and a huge increase in its corrections spending.
Similar efforts are under way in other states, mostly led by conservatives, including some who once hewed to the “lock’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” attitude.
“It’s almost a tectonic shift,” said Ken Sikkema*, former Republican leader in the Michigan Senate and House. “Even the people who have taken the position that we’ve got to be tough on crime are now saying, ‘We’ve got to be smart on crime.’”
Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, concedes he, too, once supported tougher sentencing laws.
“I had gone along with my party,” he said. “We were going to build more prisons, put people in them and throw away the key.”
That led to a three-fold increase in Michigan’s prison population to 51,000 inmates by 2006. Since then, the number has dropped to about 43,000, but the Department of Corrections’ 2012 budget still is $1.9 billion.
A nascent move is under way in Michigan, too, to re-examine some of the laws that caused that increase, particularly those dealing with juvenile offenders. As the tough-on-crime mantra took hold, Michigan legislators in 1988 and 1996 approved laws giving prosecutors the power to charge juveniles as adults. If convicted, such juveniles can be sentenced to adult prisons.
All through February, Bridge will report on the policy ferment inside Republican circles on finding new ways to handle prisons and felons.
“What the research shows is when a youth ends up in adult prison, it has much harsher consequences for the youth” and for the community, said Michelle Weemhoff, a senior policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Removed from their homes and communities and exposed to the more-hardened adult inmates, juveniles are likely to commit more crimes, she said. Weemhoff and her organization are urging lawmakers to consider alternatives to incarceration, including in-home placement for low-risk offenders.
MDOC says it spends, on average, about $33,000 a year for each prison inmate. Incarcerating youths in privately owned juvenile facilities costs about $200 a day, Weemhoff said. Placing youthful offenders in their own homes, where they can be supervised and participate in treatment programs, averages about $10 a day, she added.
In the past, youths were not held to the same standards as adults, because it was assumed they lacked mature judgment. Research over the past 20 years has confirmed that the human brain continues to develop into the early 20s, making juveniles “more impulsive and less likely to use sound judgment,” Weemhoff explained.
The trait that makes them prone to peer pressure also helps them respond to treatment, she said. By increasing funding for in-home placement, Michigan could save money, Weemhoff said. “In the long run, our goal is to see these kids grow up to be productive members of society and taxpayers. We don’t want to see them in a pipeline to prison. Other states that have implemented these changes have found that these programs actually increase public safety.”
Late last year, Donald Ross, a New York attorney and consultant for a nonprofit called Public Interest Projects, met with Weemhoff and others in Michigan to plant the seeds for juvenile justice reform. His organization has similar efforts under way in a dozen other states.
For some government officials, juvenile justice is a starting point before reconsidering the laws that have put more adults in prison. About 2.3 million Americans – one in every 100 – are behind bars, according to the Pew Center on the States. As in others states, Michigan’s lawmakers passed a series of laws in the 1980s and 1990s imposing mandatory minimum sentences, taking away judges’ discretion, eliminating “good time” points for early release and allowing juveniles to be tried as adults.
“All these things,” Ross said, “conspired to put more people in prison.”
In most states, sentencing reform, long the province of liberals, is being led by conservatives. Some are motivated by a desire to save money, Ross said, while others “are very focused on saving the kids.”
In Ohio, Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, began advocating sentencing reform three years ago, but Democrats in the legislature balked.
“They were a little bit worried about being Willie Hortoned,” or accused of being soft on crime, the ACLU’s Brickner said. Horton, a convicted murderer in Massachusetts, committed more crimes while on furlough, giving Republicans an issue against former Gov. Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential campaign.
In the 2010 elections, Ohio Republicans swept both houses of the legislature, and Kasich, a former congressman and Lehman Brothers executive, was elected governor. Last June, he signed a new law diverting first-time, nonviolent offenders to community based programs and allowing inmates to earn early release points by completing educational, vocational and mental health programs. The new law also restored judges’ discretion to decide when youths should be charged as adults — and it offered alternatives to incarceration for young offenders.
“It was a pleasant surprise for us,” Brickner said. “I don’t mean to wax poetic about our governor, but he has made some good decisions.”
Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.
* Ken Sikkema works with the Center for Michigan as part of the Corrections Reform Coalition, an alliance of business, nonprofit and education groups committed to reducing prison spending.