By Pat Shellenbarger/Bridge Magazine contributor
When Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette prescribed longer prison terms to cure the state’s crime rate recently, he was reaching back for an old belief based on the assumption that longer sentences mean safer streets.
His critics and independent researchers suggest his plan would do little to reduce crime — but would drive up the cost of Michigan’s prison system.
“There is absolutely no evidence in the world to indicate this scheme would have any impact on crime rates,” said Barbara Levine, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending, which advocates reducing prison spending through alternatives to incarceration.
Schuette’s proposal, which his office touted as his “plan to make Michigan safer,” calls for a mandatory 25-year sentence for a violent crime perpetrated by a criminal who has committed three previous felonies.
“For too long, there’s been too much fear, not enough jobs, too much fear, not enough cops,” Schuette said in announcing what he called his VO-4 plan. “Too much fear means seniors can’t walk in the park.”
Longer prison terms for habitual offenders, he suggested, would lead to safer streets – and, presumably, parks.
It’s not the first time a Michigan politician has issued such a call. The Legislature passed a series of laws in the 1980s and ’90s imposing mandatory minimum sentences now blamed for the state’s huge prison population.
Recent studies suggest longer sentences, don’t deter crime, but do cause a dramatic increase in the number of people behind bars. A 2008 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that “prison costs are blowing holes in state budgets but barely making a dent in recidivism rates.”
A 2005 study co-authored by Justin McCrary, formerly an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan and now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, similarly concluded that “increasing the frequency of jail or prison sentences or otherwise lengthening periods of incarceration has limited value as a deterrent.”
Many conservative politicians in Michigan and nationally are taking a second look at mandatory minimums and other laws that increased incarceration rates.
“I just don’t get where (Schuette) is coming from,” said Natalie Holbrook, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. “The pendulum nationally has swung the other way. To me, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like he’s coming into the game without much knowledge.”
Michigan already has a habitual offender law allowing judges to impose tougher sentences on those convicted of second, third and fourth felonies.
Schuette’s office did not respond to repeated requests from Bridge that he be interviewed for this story. At the press conference announcing his plan, he did not answer a question about how much his proposal would cost the taxpayers.
If approved by lawmakers, his VO-4 program would require an additional 17,798 prison beds over the next 25 years, a Corrections Department spokesman estimated. At the current cost of nearly $33,000 per inmate each year – and without adjusting for inflation – that would increase the state’s annual prison spending by about $585 million over the period.
State lawmakers appear to be in no mood to increase spending, particularly for prisons.
Schuette also called on the Legislature to spend $140 million of a projected $450 million budget surplus to hire 1,000 new police officers over the next two years. House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, is unlikely to support spending that much, since it is “one-time money for an ongoing expense,” his spokesman, Ari Adler, said.
As for Schuette’s mandatory sentence concept, Adler said: “Any time you’re expanding spending, you have to be concerned.”
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.
Senior Editor Derek Melot contributed to this report.