By KATIE MORELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — It’s getting tougher to land behind bars in Michigan because of communities implementing corrections programs. Such services are easing overcrowding in state prisons.
“We try our best to keep folks out of prison,” said William Overton, director of the Department of Corrections.
Overton said the department helps pay for community-based programs to keep people out of prison so those communities can provide alternative options to a prison sentence.
“Our position has always been that the only people we want to go to prison are the most dangerous offenders, the ones that pose an intimate threat to the safety and welfare” of citizens, said Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Department of Corrections.
Because of overcrowding in prisons, the Monroe County Community Corrections Advisory Board is working hard to keep its citizens out of prison by providing community corrections programs.
“In the past six years, we have dropped our prison commitment rate 10 percent,” said Lucy DeSilvis, community corrections coordinator for Monroe County.
She said that in Monroe County the rate of people sent to go through the court system and end up in state prisons in 1996 was 34 percent and now rate has dropped to 21 percent.
A 1998 state law eased prison crowding by increasing services available for nonviolent offenders.
A day-report program is one of the methods used: an offender convicted of a substance abuse is required to report to the program twice a day for drug testing.
Others include employment and training programs; pretrial services, including counseling for offenders; relapse prevention programs; and education programs.
Monroe County also offers monitoring of offenders not in correctional facilities, assisting them in finding employment and a place to live and, in some cases, in-treatment programs in a facility administered by The Salvation Army Harbor Light.
“Monroe has one of the most comprehensive alternative sentencing programs,” said Paul Simonton, chief probation officer for Monroe County.
He said the programs help reduce recidivism, the same person being re-arrested.
Simonton emphasized that to use the program, officials have to make sure they are targeting the right population. The programs deal only with nonviolent offenders who do not have convictions for serious crimes such as assault.
DeSilvis said that having offenders participate in these programs lowers costs considerably.
“Community corrections is extremely important,” DeSilvis said. “We do reduce costs because we have a lot of people in our programs who would be in jail if they weren’t participating in these programs.”
Monroe County District Court Judge Terrence Bronson said that nearly every community is feeling the effects of overcrowded prisons. “It is probably inevitable,” Bronson said.
He said some reasons for the overcrowding are crime has increased with a population increase, and laws are being more strictly enforced for offenses such as domestic violence.
Keeping space in prisons is vital for community safety, so he favors of the alternative programs provided by the communities, Bronson said.
Using these programs “leaves more beds for the violent offenders in our prisons,” he said.
Most of the cases Bronson sees have to do with substance abuse. Because most of these are usually nonviolent crimes, Bronson said, the community corrections programs can help.
“If you can get them away from drugs” with help of the rehabilitation programs, “you probably won’t see them in court again,” Bronson said. “Any program that is rehabilitative in nature, will help the person the most.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By KATIE MORELL