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Published: Friday, 2/10/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Michigan inmate initiative needs attention

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSDMAN

DETROIT -- Whatever your politics, this much is clear: Nobody ever lost votes by vowing to be tougher on crime.

Seven years ago, the Michigan Department of Corrections launched the Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, a program designed to save the state money by keeping cons from returning to the slam. It helped parolees find housing, transportation, and jobs, and kept better track of them than before.

This wasn't launched out of compassion for criminals, but because the state was drowning in the costs of corrections. Michigan's prison population, which had been 13,000 inmates in 1982, exploded to 51,000 a quarter-century later.

The math was simple. Keeping a prisoner behind bars costs $34,000 a year. Supervising one on parole costs less than a tenth as much. Soon, the state began shedding inmates and saving money.

Two months ago, Bloomberg Businessweek calculated that the initiative had saved the state $315 million. The prison population had declined dramatically as well, to about 43,000, though some of that is likely the result of other factors.

But this week, a state audit criticized the re-entry program, saying it wasn't as effective as many thought, was poorly monitored, and suffered from sloppy record-keeping.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper was quick to pounce, saying: "This shows what we have been screaming about for three years." She added: "The state has been more interested in cutting its budget than in public safety."

Her reaction wasn't surprising. Ms. Cooper, a Democrat and former judge, is expected to face a tough re-election battle in November against former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

Last November, Oakland County residents were horrified when an elderly woman was brutally slain in her home in the suburb of Royal Oak. Two paroled convicts who had failed to report to their parole officers have been arrested and charged in the case.

The Department of Corrections couldn't say whether the pair, Tonia Watson and Alan Craig Wood, were released under the re-entry initiative, but the program seemed ripe for scapegoat status.

However, if that happens, and the program is cut back or canceled, it might prove immensely costly. The percentage of Michigan parolees who end up back in prison within three years has fallen dramatically, and is now far below the national average.

Apart from the initiative, some experts say Michigan could safely release thousands of other inmates, if legislators and policy makers were willing to make a few sensible decisions.

Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack has studied the state's prisons and inmate population for years. He thinks much of the unwanted boom in the number of people behind bars is related to a series of disastrous decisions, starting in the 1970s, to close most state mental hospitals.

"Unfortunately, today, the most frequently used institution for those with mental illness is our prison and jail system," Judge Mack said. He thinks the state could dramatically reduce its prison population and save millions of dollars every year by agreeing to treat mental illness by any means necessary.

"Michigan's mental health code is stuck in the past," the judge told me. He thinks the laws should be changed to allow intervention and involuntary treatment when they are called for. In a guest column for the Center for Michigan two years ago, he wrote: "For any other illness, the court can authorize treatment when someone loses the ability to make an informed decision about his or her illness."

But though the judge repeatedly has urged lawmakers to do something, there's been little legislative interest in his proposal.

On a more modest scale, Carol Jacobsen has another way to reduce costs. Though her day job is that of a professor of art at the University of Michigan, she also is the guiding spirit behind the Michigan Women's Justice and Clemency Project. She claims hundreds of women in Michigan's prisons are no threat to anyone, and in many cases were unjustly sentenced because they were involved with men who committed heinous crimes.

Former Gov. William Milliken took up her cause, and argued repeatedly for clemency for these women, many of whom are now elderly or infirm. Though a few women were released, his efforts were mostly ignored.

Meanwhile, Michigan continues to spend more on prisons than higher education, when everyone agrees the state desperately needs fewer prisoners and more residents with college degrees.

Someone once said society needs to decide whether it can afford to lock up those it is mad at, or just those it is legitimately afraid of. Given Michigan's financial situation, it seems bizarre that its leaders are unwilling to make the rational choice.

‚óŹ

A footnote on the Ambassador Bridge: Since last week's column on the political contributions of the Moroun family, a number of readers have asked me versions of the same question: How did one man come to own a bridge that is a major border crossing and vital trade artery between Michigan and Canada?

The answer: He bought it. The Ambassador Bridge has been in private hands since it was built in 1929. Fifty years later, the descendants of the original owners sold it to Manuel "Matty" Moroun after he outbid a rival.

Who lost the bidding war for the bridge? Another billionaire investor, named Warren Buffett.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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