Michigan has a prison problem.
We send too many people to prison — particularly minorities — and keep them locked up too long, spending too much money in the process.
How much is too much? One in 5. We spend 1 of every 5 General Fund tax dollars in Michigan — $5 million a day, $2 billion a year — imprisoning 50,200 people, 31 percent higher than the Midwest average.
But what if we didn’t? What if we spent 1 in 10 or 1 in 20? Think of all the things we could spend that money on — roads, bridges, schools — if we weren’t spending so much of it on keeping our fellow citizens behind bars.
It would transform the state.
The good news is we can do just that. We can transform Michigan but only if we transform our criminal justice system. We need to rethink what we do with an eye toward finding better ways to ensure public safety while also helping the incarcerated return more quickly to polite society with the skills they need to succeed and become productive citizens.
As part of our Fair Justice/Smart Justice Michigan campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is recommending the following reforms:
■Eliminate racial biases. People of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population but account for 60 percent of the prison population. African-American defendants receive longer prison sentences than white defendants and are far more likely to be arrested. We simply cannot tolerate this any longer. A good place to start is with what’s called “implicit bias” awareness and sensitivity training for judges, police and everyone else involved in our criminal justice system.
■Continue refining sentencing guidelines. Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing, giving Michigan’s judges more flexibility. This was a huge step forward, but to positively effect lasting change we must build real understanding among Michigan’s citizenry to understand the changes in the law and continue with further refinements.
■Update our parole system. Achieving substantive changes to our parole system is a critical step for any corrections reform effort. We must reform Michigan’s Community Corrections Act, make it easier to earn parole, reduce returns to prison of technical parole violators and reserve life without parole for truly extraordinary circumstances. We should also release elderly or infirm prisoners.
■Stop unjust and unnecessary felony charges. We should reserve felony classifications for the most heinous of crimes while ensuring that crimes currently over-classified in the felony category are reduced to misdemeanor status. We also need to increase use of specialty courts across Michigan in order to successfully divert offenders to programs that provide them with the best avenues of success for their future.
■Reinstate early release for “good time.” Michigan dumped this effective incentive a long time ago, and it’s time we bring it back.
■Spend more on successful re-entry. Study after study shows programs such as the Michigan Prison Re-Entry Initiative are worthwhile investments. By educating and job training inmates we help them stay out of prison and become productive members of society.
■Raise the age of mandatory trial as an adult to 18. This change would allow courts to divert children into programs that make them pay for crimes but not force them into the general population at tough facilities, where they often suffer abuse and neglect.
■Increase spending on mental health and addiction treatment and diversion programs. The best way to keep people out of prison is to prevent them from committing crimes in the first place. A majority of prisoners today have some form of mental illness or addiction. We need to focus our limited resources on helping these people before they enter the criminal justice system.
None of this will be easy to achieve. Inertia is always difficult to overcome. But if we start now and work together with our common interests in mind, there’s no reason Michigan has to continue having a prison problem.
Kary L. Moss is executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.