Across Michigan, a fierce debate is raging over how long to keep criminals locked up in prison. Basically, it’s all about money. Governor Jennifer Granholm has to present the legislature with a balanced budget, and the state is running a huge deficit.
So she’s proposing saving $140 million this year with sentencing reforms that would reduce Michigan’s prison population, now about forty-six thousand inmates, by ten thousand by the end of next year. The way to do that is simple: Let people out earlier.
That’s already going on, to some extent; the prison population is down several thousand from its all-time high. To some extent, that’s due to more paroles. But the state also seems to be experiencing some success with its Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, designed to help parolees adjust to society.
However, the governor wants to release a lot more inmates. She’s supporting a bill that would reinstate what’s called “good time.” Prisoners could reduce their sentences by as much as five days a month in return for good behavior in prison. Almost all other states have this already. Michigan used to, but abolished good time a few years ago, under the theory that the best way to solve the crime problem was to keep prisoners locked up as long as possible.
Trouble is, that hasn’t worked very well. Studies show that longer sentences aren’t any more likely than short ones to keep inmates from returning to a life of crime.
True, they are no threat to society while still in prison, which is the best argument for keeping them behind bars. The state, however, is out of money. The so-called “good time” bill now before the house would save taxpayers more than $100 million a year.
But prosecutors don’t like it. Oakland County’s Jessica Cooper calls the current program of accelerating paroles “reckless,” especially where violent felons are concerned. Wayne County alone has forty convicted killers eligible for parole by the end of April. In keeping with their law and order image, the Republicans in the legislature also don’t want to let people out early.
But are they willing to raise taxes to keep people in prison? No, they don’ t want to do that either. Well, comrades, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Keeping someone in a Michigan prison costs around $35,000 a year. Republican State Sen. Alan Cropsey is sponsoring a modest plan that would allow most prisoners to be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentence.
That would reduce the prison population slightly, by 2,000 inmates over the next four years, and save maybe $35 million, but not nearly enough to close the deficit.
So -- what’s the answer?
I suggest finding a way to have prison policy governed by common sense. We have to find a way of differentiating between those who rape and murder and the guy who got into drugs, wrote some bad checks, and has a shot at rebuilding his life.
We also have to give newly released prisoners a chance to support themselves -- or they’ll end up right back in prison again. My guess is that we can do all that -- if we first find a way to remove prison policy from partisan politics. Otherwise, we’ll be sentencing our state to some really hard times.