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Lansing – The powerful Koch brothers and their namesake company are helping jump-start a renewed push for criminal justice reforms in Michigan.

The libertarian-leaning conservative businessmen argue that the state can do more to ensure fairness and fiscal responsibility in criminal sentencing, prison rehabilitation and re-entry services.

“It’s not ‘soft on crime, tough on crime’ or meaningless slogans,” said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries. “We want to be smart on crime and really soft on taxpayers.”

Holden is set to testify Tuesday morning before the Michigan House Law and Justice Committee, where chairman Klint Kesto is planning five or six hearings to discuss “safe and secure rehabilitation” policies and explore what other states have done.

The Commerce Township Republican is looking to stir a broad conversation about the criminal justice system less than a month after Gov. Rick Snyder signed most parts of a parole and probation reform package spearheaded by the state Senate, which Kesto called “a start.”

“This is a big issue. ... It costs a lot of money in our state budget … ,” Kesto told The Detroit News. “We have to find a way to really solve the problems, so let’s bring in the big guns that know about the topic.”

Best known for their large political contributions to Republican candidates, Charles and David Koch have joined a bipartisan push for criminal justice reforms nationwide. Charles, in particular, has become a leading national advocate.

“We get branded as conservative Republicans, but we really just want to try to create what we call more of a free and open society and break down these barriers to opportunity that exist in our country,” Holden said. “… If you’re wealthy and connected, you get a much better deal than someone who’s poor, and that’s regardless of guilt or innocence.”

The state House approved criminal justice-related bills last session that did not receive a vote in the Senate, including a controversial “presumptive parole” proposal that could have sped up the release of some well-behaved prisoners who had served their minimum sentences but faced opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Kesto said House Republicans have not formally put together a new package yet this year, but he’s hoping his upcoming hearings could inspire new legislation. Mark Levin of the conservative Right on Crime group is also expected to testify Tuesday, along with Lenore Anderson with the Alliance for Safety and Justice.

“At the end of the day, we still have to look at the overall picture of how we are safely and securely releasing folks, and then how do we rehabilitate them so they can be transitioned into society without getting back into crime,” Kesto said.

Michigan’s prison population has dropped over the past decade, a trend coinciding with a reduction in violent crime rates. It has spurred a new Senate plan to pare back the nearly $2 billion a year the state spends on corrections.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider subcommittee recommendations this week for a 2018 corrections budget that would lop $40 million in general fund spending proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder and cut $27.8 million compared with the current year.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, said the state should be able to save significant cash on corrections facilities, food service and health care because the prison population fell by nearly 1,600 inmates from February 2016 to February 2017.

“There’s significant taxpayer savings to be had, and we believe the department can achieve over $40 million in savings because of that drop in population,” said Proos, who sponsored the Senate parole and probation reform package Snyder signed March 30.

But the math doesn’t add up, said Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz, who said the state is projected to end this fiscal year with 919 fewer prisoners than it had in September 2016.

He argued the Senate budget could “really erode a lot of the good work” the department has done to reduce recidivism rates, noting it would cut $2 million proposed by Snyder to continue a Wayne County “residential alternatives to prison program” and expand it to 13 counties in west Michigan.

The Senate plan would instead fund a $3 million pilot program for up to 400 inmates to complete an online high school equivalency course.

A smaller prison population helps the state “save some at the margins, but not at the levels they are projecting and putting out there,” Gautz told The Detroit News.

Real savings come from closing prisons, Gautz said, noting operational costs like lighting and heating do not depend on the number of prisoners housed at a location. But Michigan’s prison population hasn’t fallen enough in the past year to close a major facility, he said.

Michigan would need about 1,500 open “beds” to be able to close a prison and is projected to have around 1,900 open by the start of fiscal year 2018. But the department traditionally maintains up to 700 beds for “wiggle room” in case of an unexpected influx, leaving it several hundred beds short of a closure target.

“We’re not quite at the number we’d feel comfortable closing a prison,” Gautz said.

Michigan last year shuttered Pugsley Correctional Facility in Grand Traverse County and has closed 17 prisons or camps since the state’s prison population peaked in 2007 and began to decline.

The new Senate corrections budget does not call for any prison closures, but “we left it to the department to make decision on how best to address that question,” Proos said.

The second-term Republican argues the state can save significant money on “marginal” prisons costs, citing a 2015 report by the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency.

“We believe that the numbers bear that out,” Proos said. “We’ll look forward to the negotiations and discussions on how to ensure that we continue to invest in accelerating the decline in the (prison) population.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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