January 23, 2009 at 11:37 am

Earlier prison releases urged

Study's projected savings of $262M a first step, officials say

"This report is taking a look first and foremost at public safety," said Sen. Alan Cropsey, with Corrections Director Patricia Caruso and Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, right. (Dale G. Young The Detroit News)

LANSING -- Law enforcement officials Thursday praised proposals for cutting the number of state prison inmates by 5,000 and saving a modest $262 million by 2015.

The report, prepared by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, falls far short of the $500 million in annual savings on Corrections spending called for by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and others.

And Gov. Jennifer Granholm's 2010 budget proposal, to be unveiled next month, is expected to keep prison spending near the $2 billion mark -- 57 percent more than the cost a decade ago.

But the recommendations issued by the Council of State Governments, which is working with state officials on a two- to three-year study of Michigan prisons, are a significant first step.

The biggest savings from the study group would be achieved by reducing the parole board's authority to keep convicts behind bars long after they have served their minimum sentences.

It would aim to have the average inmate serve 120 percent of his or her minimum sentence, rather than the current 127 percent. In some cases, inmates have served nearly four times longer than their minimum sentences.

"Given our current fiscal crisis, we can't have business as usual," said state Budget Director Robert Emerson, who worked on the recommendations.

Much, if not all, of the initial savings could actually be wiped out by the costs of the report's other recommendations: to create jobs programs for inmates being released from prison, put more cops on the street and reduce the months-long backlogs of analysis for DNA, firearms and other evidence in crime labs. There's no estimate for the cost of these efforts.

But the recommendations could result in real savings in later years, by helping drop the inmate population to around 43,500 by 2015 and reducing the crime rate, corrections officials say.

Dennis Schrantz, deputy Corrections director, said the department won't limit its cost-cutting efforts to these proposals.

"There will be more cuts in Corrections, you can take that to the bank," said Schrantz, noting that the state has closed nine prison facilities since 2003 and will close three more this year for an overall savings of almost $390 million.

"This report is taking a look first and foremost at public safety," said Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, the Senate's Corrections point man and an opponent of relaxed criminal penalties. "The report is not budget-driven."

Added state Corrections Director Patricia Caruso: "This is a starting point. They are a step; they are not the end."

Caruso stressed that the proposals, which soon will be introduced as bills are fast-tracked in the new Legislature, won't lead to early release of any inmates. There are 48,400 inmates in Michigan prisons now, down from the record high of 52,000 in March 2007.

Eaton County Prosecutor Jeff Sauter, speaking for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said the "eye-opening" aspect of the findings by the team of experts probing the state prisons system is that "Michigan has a violent crime problem."

The group said Michigan has a higher violent crime rate than neighboring states.

Sauter and other law enforcement officials expressed relief that the recommendations didn't include dramatic changes in criminal policies.

"It's clear that our sentencing guidelines and truth-in-sentencing policy do not result in too many people being sent to prison," Sauter said.

Truth-in-sentencing, unique to Michigan, requires every convicted felon serve at least the minimum prison sentence before there's any chance of parole.

Michigan, unlike virtually all other states, does not allow the time served in prison to be shortened as a result of good behavior.

Granholm and legislative leaders asked the respected, nonpartisan council to undertake the review a year ago as policymakers deadlocked over needed justice policy reforms and cost-cutting measures for the Corrections Department.

The project was supported by an unspecified amount of money from the Pew Charitable Trusts Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice. The state's share of the cost came to $100,000.

According to the study:

  • Michigan's has seen a 2 percent decline in violent crime since 2000, compared to an 8 percent drop for the nation. In 2007, 28 percent of violent crimes resulted in an arrest in Michigan, compared to 44 percent nationally.

  • Michigan has just 263 cops per 100,000 residents, the lowest among seven Great Lakes states. Detroit alone has lost 1,500 officers since the start of the decade.

  • In Michigan, 12,000 prison inmates already have served beyond their earliest release date.

  • Unemployment averages 50 percent among Michigan's 53,000 probationers and could run as high as 70 percent among the 18,000 people on parole. Finding work for more of them is acknowledged as a major challenge in a state whose jobless rate just hit 10.6 percent and is expected to remain in double digits for the next two years.

    You can reach Charlie Cain at (517) 371-3660.