Tuesday, Mar 28, 2017
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Michigan’s prison system must undergo comprehensive reform

LANSING — There’s a battle brewing in state government over whether or not to close two of Michigan’s 35 prisons to save money.

Influential state senators are backing a budget proposal that would close two prisons (no one is saying which yet) and use the $15 million that the state would save to perform badly needed repairs and improvements on other aging state prison buildings.

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State corrections officials are stoutly opposed. How this will shake out isn’t clear; the legislature is nowhere near finishing the corrections budget for the next fiscal year.

But what may be most frustrating is that both sides are ignoring the real elephant in the room — the need for comprehensive prison reform, something that looked like a bipartisan possibility two years ago, before being torpedoed by a politically ambitious attorney general who some say was more interested in looking tough on crime.

First, today’s issue: State Sen. John Proos (R., St. Joseph), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee dealing with corrections, wants to close two prisons. He notes that the state prison population, which peaked at 51,554 in 2007, has been declining.

The most recent numbers available show it had dropped to 43,704 two years ago — and is thought to be even smaller today.

Another factor is that courts are now more reluctant to give long prison sentences to those convicted of possessing or selling relatively small amounts of drugs, which sent inmate populations skyrocketing in the 1980s and 90s.

But state corrections department officials don’t want to close any prisons. Heidi Washington, corrections director, said they have mothballed several housing units to save money, but want to keep all the prisons open in case incarceration levels rise again.

How all this will play out is far from certain. But while some form of compromise is likely, nobody seems willing to tackle the real issue — the need to seek some form of comprehensive prison reform, or risk bankrupting the state.

Hard to believe, but back in 1973, Michigan had fewer than 8,000 state prisoners, less than one-fifth the number it does today.

During that time, Michigan’s total population grew by barely 10 percent. The cost of keeping the exploding prison population locked up soared from 2 percent of the state budget to 20 percent.

Despite the recent decline in inmate population, corrections department projections show it slowly rising again over the next few years. Michigan’s prison population is also aging — and old and sick inmates are some of the most expensive to house.

According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Michigan’s online magazine Bridge, there are nearly 500 inmates older than 70, many in wheelchairs and walkers. An elderly inmate in Jackson cost the state $316,420 in health-care costs in one recent year.

The Citizens’ Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending released a comprehensive blueprint last year outlining a reasonable plan to reduce the inmate population by 10,000 over the next few years, something that could save cash-strapped Michigan 250 million badly needed dollars a year.

Ways to do this include “presumptive parole,” which would mean releasing more inmates after having served their minimum sentences, unless there were clear signs they presented a danger to the public safety. Last year’s Bridge Magazine study found hundreds of inmates still locked up — at a cost to the taxpayers of $35,000 a year — for nonviolent offenses ranging from possession of small amounts of marijuana to not paying child support.

Five inmates were doing hard time for smashing parking meters and stealing coins from them.

Two years ago, former Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack and former State Rep. Joe Haveman, a conservative Republican from Holland, sought to do something about this.

They and others noted that many Michigan inmates really belong in drug treatment or mental health facilities.

Mr. Haveman, then appropriations committee chair, championed the idea of allowing some of the state’s geriatric or terminally ill prisoners to go to a state-run nursing home, an idea that has resulted in significant savings in Connecticut.

“What’s the point of keeping all these people locked up until they die?” he told Bridge Magazine.

But their efforts came to nothing after they were denounced by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is believed to have his eyes on the GOP nomination for governor in 2018.

He has opposed virtually every prison reform except more privatization to save costs, and has said the state should seek savings by cutting the already low salaries of corrections workers.

Two years ago, Mr. Schuette managed to convince legislators to reject a package of reforms that included presumptive parole.

Meanwhile, Michigan continues to spend a larger portion of its general fund budget on prisons than any other state.

Michigan keeps prisoners behind bars longer than any other state. Two years ago, Mr. Haveman, who has since been term-limited out of the legislature, told his colleagues he had concluded that locking so many people up did nothing to create safer communities.

He said they “better start looking for solutions now,” unless they wanted prison spending to overwhelm the state’s needs.

Unfortunately, politics trumped common sense instead.

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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