By JACOB KANCLERZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – Despite years of cuts and reforms, Michigan’s corrections budget is bigger than other portions of the state budget, including higher education and safety net programs.
Although the state’s prison population of about 43,000 has fallen from an all-time high of 51,554 in 2007, the Michigan Department of Corrections and a coalition of interest groups continue to push reforms, particularly in how long people stay imprisoned.
The corrections department has closed 14 prisons and camps, bid out health care services, stripped away layers of administration and made other savings over the past decade, said John Cordell, a public information specialist with the Michigan Department of Corrections. It now costs just $2 a day to feed three meals to each prisoner.
The corrections budget hovers around $2 billion annually (Cordell said it’s $1.93 billion this year), and the prison population is partly why, said John Bebow, the executive director for the Center for Michigan, a think tank in Ann Arbor. Although Michigan’s prison population is down 15 percent from the 2007 peak, a 2011 report from the Council of State Government showed that Michigan has the highest imprisonment rate in the Midwest.
In 2008, the Center for Michigan organized a coalition of business, education and nonprofit interest groups concerned that corrections spending was crowding out other budget areas. Known as the Corrections Reform Coalition, it has proposed spending cuts and other reforms, some of which the corrections department has adopted, Bebow said.
The cost of government is why groups other than traditional prison organizations have become involved.
“Business groups are concerned about the rates of taxation and they see this fast-growing area of state government that’s very different from everything else,” Bebow said. “Nonprofit and education groups see the corrections budget growing at the expense of much more important investment priorities, from the social safety net to keeping the cost of college low.”
The coalition suggested releasing more prisoners after they serve their minimum sentence dates. According to a 2010 report by the coalition, 8,000 Michigan inmates are serving past their earliest release dates.
It costs the state $34,000 a year for each year a prisoner stays beyond their minimum sentence, Cordell said. The corrections department has made efforts to reduce the number of prisoners who stay beyond the minimums.
“If this person does everything they’re supposed to do and they’re ready to return to society at their earliest release date, as a corrections agency, you should be getting them back out there with the necessary support they need to follow through on parole,” Cordell said. The state parole board is projected to grant parole to a potential 12,000 prisoners this year, he said.
However, releasing prisoners after their minimum sentence could distress the victims of crimes, said Terrence Jungel, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. Business groups belonging to the coalition such as the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Detroit and Grand Rapids Regional Chambers don’t understand criminal justice, he said.
“There’s a whole segment of the population that’s missing from these discussions, and that’s the victims,” he said.
Jungel said public safety needs to remain a priority.
“Any time you allow economics to drive the train of public safety, you’re heading for derailment,” he said. “Society has to know they’re safe and secure above everything else.”
Still, Michigan keeps people in prison longer than other states, Cordell said. He blames the state’s criminal sentencing structure.
The Council of State Governments found that Michigan could save $35 million over the next four years by reforming sentencing for most of its crimes, Cordell said. It suggested setting the maximum amount of the sentence at 120 percent of the minimum requirement of the sentence. Instead of a six to 10 year sentence, it would be six to 7.2 years, or about seven years and two months. He said some sentences in Michigan right now can range from 10 to 40 years.
Reforming the length of sentences could reduce the prison population, but beginning that process is a huge political obstacle.
“That is an area the current Legislature has no appetite to touch,” Bebow said. “The mere concept of looking at sentencing reforms seems to be a threat to the ‘get tough on crime’ approach.”
While sentencing reform may not be in the works, the state is looking at a new program to limit the number of parolees returning to prisons, known as swift-and-sure sanctioning.
The program, which has been successful in Hawaii, takes an aggressive approach to keeping first time felons and other probationers out of state prisons when they violate probation, said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee for corrections appropriations.
“Let’s say they’re required to check in on a weekly basis with a drug screen,” he said. “Under swift and sure sanctioning, you may see an every-48 hour drug screen, or up to five times random in a week, and … have that individual in court immediately if there was a (failed drug test), and the judge would immediately sanction that person to two days, three days in jail, thereby relating the behavior directly to a sanction.”
Proos said that time would be served in county jails to limit repeat offenders going back into the prisons.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.