Opinion: Michigan Must Get Smarter about Prison Sentencing

The Detroit News

By Bill DeBoer

As the cost of crime and punishment continues to rise, it’s time for Michigan to take a hard look at the rate of return on Department of Corrections spending and decide whether it’s wise to keep those dollars locked up behind bars.

The good news is Michigan’s prison population has dropped from 51,000 in 2006 to roughly 43,500 in 2013. But with the state still spending one of every five general fund dollars on corrections — roughly $2 billion per year — the challenge we face is simple: how can we keep low-risk offenders out of prison and reduce corrections costs in a way that would not jeopardize public safety?

The recent introduction of four House Bills, 5928-5931, by State Rep. Joe Haveman, represents a major step in the right direction. The legislation would modernize the state’s community corrections system by restoring the Justice Policy Commission, creating more consistency and certainty throughout Michigan’s criminal justice system, guaranteeing that every individual released from prison receives supervision in the community.

The Council of State Governments spent more than two years studying Michigan’s criminal justice system and the four House bills are based on those recommendations.

Of particular interest is Rep. Haveman’s desire to reduce the number of geriatric inmates, some of Michigan’s least-threatening but most expensive prisoners, and relocate these individuals into residential rehabilitation facilities to reduce the state’s Medicare burden.

According to Haveman, it costs the state close to $100,000 per inmate per year to house and care for each elderly prisoner in the system. While public safety is always the first concern when dealing with violent offenders, the approach to caring for these sick and aging inmates might be better handled in non-prison facilities, resulting in significant savings to the state.

Reforms to probation and parole policies would also provide safe but valuable cost savings. Research has proven that alternative corrections programs better prepare inmates for a successful life after incarceration. This approach also provides a better path for restitution to crime victims. A low-risk offender who learns discipline and work habits in a non-prison program has a much better chance of transiting from a life of crime to a successful life outside the criminal justice system.

Michigan needs to find ways to reduce crime, create safer communities with fewer victims and spend its money wisely. Rep. Haveman’s legislation is a positive step toward achieving those goals.

Bill DeBoer is president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program, a community-based alternative to incarceration.