Finley: Get road money from Michigan's prison budget

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The absolute need to find more money for roads and the obvious aversion of lawmakers to raise any type of tax should turn attention toward a deep pool of money that could be used to fill potholes.

Michigan spends more than $2 billion a year on Corrections. It's well documented the state locks up more people for longer stretches than most of its peer states, without making residents safer. Necessity should drive hard decisions about who we lock up and why, and for how long. It should also force an inmate by inmate review of the prison population to determine who can be freed without endangering the public or emboldening criminals.

"The whole prison population doesn't need to be in prison," says Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Policy, which studies sentencing and other corrections issues. "You can incarcerate fewer people for less time without risking public safety."

Levine's group will release early next month a report detailing how Michigan can cut more than 20 percent of its 43,000 prison beds, primarily through sentencing reforms and by sending fewer people to prison.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who will address criminal justice issues Monday, formed a commission to study sentencing. Its mission should be guided by the thoughts of former Corrections Director Patricia Caruso, who said when deciding who to incarcerate society must distinquish between who it's afraid of, and who it's just mad at.

Prisons serve two purposes: protecting the public and punishing criminals. It's essential to lock away those who truly present a danger to safety and property. It's a luxury, particularly in a state that needs prison dollars for other priorities, to keep in costly cells inmates who either never were or no longer are dangerous. There's no proven benefit to either society or inmates in imposing excessively long prison sentences.

Anne Yantus of the State Appellate Defenders Office says Michigan could substantially cut its prison population by releasing elderly inmates — recidivism for male convicts over age 50 is extremely low. It could do the same by restoring good time, granting more early releases to inmates serving parolable life sentences and letting most prisoners go after serving their minimum penalty.

We also should consider punishment options other than prison time for those otherwise good citizens who suddenly walk off the dock.

Finding penalties that are more creative than just locking away those who made a stupid decision or in a moment of passion acted in a manner contrary to their nature would not only show mercy to the offender, but also save taxpayers $35,000 a year per convict.

We can't afford to be this tough on crime. We're cheating schools and driving on dangerous roads to keep those who pose no threat to us locked away from productive lives.

Michigan should set a goal of cutting the prison budget by 25 percent, and pouring that $500 million into potholes. I'd rather have smooth roads than starchless old men idling in prison cells.