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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/06/guest-column-if-michigan-prison-costs-are-high-its-for-good-reason/
14 June 2012
By Jeff Sauter/Eaton County prosecutor
The recently released PewCenter report on prison terms is an important source of statistical information which deserves careful study for policy use in Michigan.
I want to warn, however, about drawing simplistic conclusions — which some will undoubtedly do in their perpetual advocacy for early release of prisoners or to reduce spending on corrections.
We all desire to spend less on corrections, but wishes for a better world cannot drive public policy. Our criminal justice system needs to retain prison as an option to respond to violent and repetitive crimes.
Michigan has a violent crime problem. We have the most violent crime of the Midwestern states and four of the 12 most violent cities in America. Consequently, I was relieved to see that the authors of the report concluded that “violent and habitual offenders belong behind bars and for a long time.”
So, I was puzzled that they sensationalized the cost of longer prison sentences by including violent offenses in their calculations. They headline that Michigan spent $471.9 million as the cost of keeping prisoners longer. But in the body of the report, the potential savings for longer non-violent sentences was $92 million.
That is not a trivial amount, but why did they overstate the potential savings by $379 million if “violent and habitual offenders belong behind bars and for a long time”?
The Pew report also concludes that building prisons to house lower-risk, non-violent offenders, for longer sentences, is not the best way to reduce crime. But, Michiganis not building prisons. This point illustrates a bigger vulnerability of the Pew report: It covers such a broad period of time, back to 1990, that its conclusions are not timely.
Michigan has made numerous, significant changes to sentencing law and procedure. Pew notes that the fastest period in the growth of sentence length nationally occurred between 1995 and 2000 and that, thereafter, most states had moderate growth or leveled off in the length of prison sentence. Since the mid-1990s, Michigan has eliminated mandatory minimum drug sentences, implemented legislative sentence guidelines, required truth in sentencing and raised the felony threshold from $100 to $1,000.
Each of these changes — and changes in the size and practices of the Michigan parole board — have impacted length of prison sentences. So, the Pew study does not answer whether Michigan needs to change practices or whether cost-effective changes have already been made.
Finally, Pew reports that Michigan has the longest overall length of prison stay. I believe that the reason is that Michigan commits to prison as a sentencing option much less than other states do. Initially, 90 percent of Michigan’s felons are given a chance on probation or given only a jail sentence. Only 10 percent of our felons are sentenced directly to prison.
Even after one or more probation violations, Michigan’s rate of committing felons to prison is about half of the national average! It is no wonder then — that if felons are sent to prison at half the national rate — the prison term is longer when a judge does give up on efforts to reform the offender on probation.
We need to carefully consider the data used in the study and the assumptions that were made to draw comparisons to other states. But we should only examine our current procedures for cost-effectiveness — not rely on decades’ old data to indiscriminately slash corrections spending, especially since our violent crime problems persist.
Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.