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Guest commentary

Guest column: If Michigan prison costs are high, it’s for good reason

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.”

Jeff Sauter is Eaton County's prosecuting attorney and past-president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

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.

5 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Hairman

    Bring back the Cat of Nine Tails PUBLIC flogging. Show on the 6:00 NEWS. That will GREATLY reduce crime and the cost to the taxpayer.
    Next problem?

  2. AMF

    Why not take advantage of the now-defunct MI film production facilities – bail them out by buying the buildings and converting them to jails. We can lock up more criminals and put people to work. Could be a win-win.

  3. Jeffrey L Salisbury

    The thesis behind the Pew Study is that “…criminologists and policy makers increasingly agree that we (the U.S.) have reached a “tipping point” with incarceration, where additional imprisonment will have little if any effect on crime. Research also has identified new offender supervision strategies and technologies that can help break the cycle of recidivism. Across the nation, these developments, combined with tight state budgets, have prompted a significant shift toward alternatives to prison for lower-level offenders.”

    The report then goes on to take a lengthy, substantive, treatise of the whole subject of the lack of success in reducing crime simply by incarceration.

    Prosecutor Sauter declares readers of the (60+ pages) Pew Study should not be “drawing simplistic conclusions” but offers a retort with his own one-line rebuttal: “Michigan has a violent crime problem.”

    The point of the Pew Study is not to debate that point, but to note that perhaps incarceration is not the answer.

  4. Joe

    Let’s end the war on drugs. As the boastful “land of the free” we incarcerate more people than any country in the world. America arrests nearly 900,000 people annually for marijuana alone. It’s big business as well as job security for a virtual army of public servants from cops to social workers. Then there are lobbyists, construction firms, food service companies and the rural communities like Ionia County that depend on taxpayer fear to fund their livelihoods. Like the military bases across America we don’t need, the real welfare cheats are those that pretend they’re defending freedom while squeezing it dry. Prohibition created organized crime syndicates the same way the war on drugs has. Murderers and rapists are not the majority of felons in our prisons and jails.

    Private contractors and their shareholders depend on stricter laws and mandatory sentences as their cash cows while the media provides free marketing. While we cut education funding we spend $30,000 on a prisoner. We ended prohibition, we need to grow up and end the war on drugs, even if it means allowing people to make their own decisions about how they want to entertain themselves. It’s gone from moralizing do-gooders to big business.

  5. Tim

    It’s truly a shame when we are spending 3 to 4 times as much to house a prisoner for a year than to educate a student for a year. And then people complain about how much money educators make. Look at where our tax dollars are being spent (read: wasted)!

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