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Published: Friday, 7/28/2006

Michigan's Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative shows promise

LANSING, Mich. - Every year, Michigan prisons release about 13,000 people who have served their time or been granted parole.

And every year, thousands go right back. Nearly half of all released prisoners are behind bars again within two years. Housing these repeat offenders costs cash-strapped Michigan a fast-rising $117 million, according to the Department of Corrections.

That's money the state desperately needs. Prisons now cost Michigan far more than higher education. Thanks to changes in the laws that meant long sentences for petty drug dealers, Michigan's prison population is four times what it was in 1982.

The cost grows larger every year, and there seemed to be little anyone could do about it.

Until now. With little fanfare, the state some time ago quietly began an experimental program, the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, aimed at cutting the recidivism - repeat offender - rate.

And early indications are that it is working better than anyone expected. "I really think this program is the answer," said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

"I've worked in corrections - I was a parole officer in Detroit for six years," said Mr. Marlan. "And this has the potential to save the state $100 million a year."

The Re-Entry Initiative is designed to help prisoners line up a place to live and a job, or a job training program, months before their release.

Then, the prisoner is connected to a network of parole officers and social agencies who are there both to help them and keep tabs on them for as long as two years after they get out.

"What we've been doing is just releasing them whenever their sentence ends. Many of them have essentially no family support, no job, no connections," said Mr. Marlan, who has also served as deputy warden of the state's "boot camp" for juvenile offenders.

"Sometimes we would release them at the start of a weekend with next to no family support, and no place to go except a cheap hotel room." Many prisoners have no connections, except the same bad influences with whom they got in trouble before. In some cases, they were in trouble again within days.

The re-entry program has been tried on about one-tenth the state's released prisoners, and the early numbers have been more encouraging than anyone expected. So far, the recidivism rate has fallen to around 15 percent, less than a third of what it was.

Mr. Marlan and other prison officials cautioned that those numbers are not statistically significant. Because some of the 1,330 prisoners released through the program have been out less than two years, that re-entry rate is bound to climb, if only slightly.

Nevertheless, prison officials are close to ecstatic. This year, the program will expand dramatically, and by next year, they hope to extend it to the entire state.

"We would do it sooner, but it takes time to line up all the personnel - this is a comprehensive program," said Mr. Marlan.

"Other states see us as the gold standard now in parole reform," he said proudly, nothing there was tremendous interest in how the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative works.

That was confirmed by a spokesman for the Maryland-based Center for Effective Public Policy, who called the Michigan program "historically different."

The verdict of history may take a little longer to deliver. As someone once said, a big part of the problem is that Americans have never been able to decide whether our prisons are supposed to rehabilitate or punish, and as a result, they do neither.

The prisoner re-entry program may have been inspired by the state's economic crisis, but it still takes a big step in the direction of rehabilitation.

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Three Cheers for Victor Ghalib Begg: Mr. Begg is a proudly devout Muslim in the furniture business in the Detroit area, and is a co-founder and the chair of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan.

But he is preaching a message seldom heard in the Muslim-American community: Let's clean up our act.

"We need to do some soul-searching and take it on ourselves to monitor our own community and isolate and denounce jihadists and potential troublemakers," he said.

"Islam actually is a religion that preaches religious tolerance. We need to make that known, and be a force in spreading tolerance," Mr. Begg added. Don't get Victor Begg wrong - he doesn't like the domestic surveillance the Bush Administration has engaged in, nor the war in Iraq. But he is in favor of adult behavior.

"When Pat Robertson made those silly statements that we should assassinate a foreign leader he didn't like (Hugo Chavez of Venezuela) you had Christian leaders denouncing him almost immediately." Muslims should learn from that, he said.

And perhaps all of us could learn from Victor Begg.



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