Lawmakers debate bringing good time back for prisoners

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Capital News Service
LANSING – In an effort to reduce the prison population, the Legislature is considering a proposal to reinstate good time credit for inmates who behave well.
In late February, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold hearings about good time credits, as proposed in a bill by Rep. George Cushingberry Jr., D-Detroit.
The committee will also debate a proposal by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to close four or five prisons by October.
Cushingberry’s legislation would make some prisoners eligible for early release if they exhibit good behavior.
The program would cut minimum sentences by a fixed number of days for every month a prisoner goes without a major misconduct charge.  The Department of Corrections estimates that the change could reduce the prison population of approximately 43,000 by about 7,550 and save the department about $107 million annually.
In 1987, good time was replaced by a disciplinary credit system that automatically put prisoners on  track towards early release unless they misbehaved.
Advocates argue that restoring the good time policy would free up space in prisons and saves the state money.
Critics, however, counter that it would  create a safety risk for the public
Ionia County Circuit judge David Hoort said that while public safety is a legitimate concern, good time could be beneficial if it were implemented properly.
Hoort said the program must distinguish among different types of crime to minimize chances for violent criminals and sex offenders to get out early.
Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola said that good time poses too great a safety risk.
“Giving our victims some assurances of safety while an individual that victimized them is incarcerated is really important to our society and to the state of Michigan,” Spaniola said.
He also said that the state should be cautious about how it cuts the Corrections Department budget.
“I would almost equate spending for Corrections to be the same for spending for national defense in time of conflict,”  Spaniola said.
Public safety should be the state’s number-one priority and good time threatens that priority, said Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.
Jungel also expressed concern that the state is letting economics dictate corrections policy and said it should explore other alternatives, such as privatization of prison services, to save money.
Spaniola  said good time didn’t work when Michigan had the system before.and that many prisoners did not serve their minimum sentence and even fewer served their maximum.
In 1998, the disciplinary credit system was replaced with truth-in-sentencing, which requires prisoners to serve their entire minimum sentence.
Hoort said the Legislature changed the system because it was being abused and inmates were released early without proper consideration of the consequences.
“We have to make sure that it is what it is.  If it’s used to get people out of prison, that’s obviously counterproductive,” said Hoort.
He said good time should be geared towards prisoners who would benefit from less time in prison and more rehabilitative services and who committed nonviolent and non-sex crimes.
“I think that everybody agrees that a person who is going to hurt somebody or commit any type of sex offense is not the type of person we want out on the streets, whether it be because of good time or prison overcrowding,” said Hoort.
He said that people convicted of nonviolent and non-sex crimes, such as drug and alcohol offenses, would most likely benefit from different sentencing guidelines and more rehabilitative services.
Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said that re-implementing good time would bring Michigan sentencing guidelines in line with other states’, while also bringing corrections costs down.
“Yes, there’s consideration of the cost, but that’s not the only thing driving the idea we should reduce the prison population.  We’re really kind of out of whack with other states,” said Meadows.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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