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Michigan is missing an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic to substantially reduce its prison population to both save taxpayers’ money and protect the lives of an extremely vulnerable population.

The state leads the nation in the number of prison deaths from the virus, 59 as of Friday. It ranks second to New Jersey in the per-capita rate of prisoner deaths.

Other states have moved more aggressively to thin their prison populations to slow the spread of the virus. Governors in California, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere have used their commutation powers and ordered early releases of prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, Michigan has taken much smaller steps.

It is moving out many convicts who have already served their minimum sentence, a change from the previous practice of keeping prisoners locked up well beyond that point.

The state is the leader in testing inmates for the virus and has strict protocols in place for dealing with those who test positive, but the virus is still spreading.

The prison population here has dropped to 36,500 from 38,000 since mid-March, but much of that decrease stems from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order preventing county jails from sending convicts into state prisons during the pandemic.

The state may not have the luxury of keeping its prisons so full much longer.

With the projected revenue shortfall topping $6 billion over the next two years, policymakers will have to make tough choices about spending priorities.

There’s no justification for devoting $2 billion a year to the prison system. 

Michigan started locking up more people for longer periods of time during the tough-on-crime push of the 1980s. Prison populations exploded over the couple of decades, though they  have been coming down in recent years.

If the state made the decision now to reserve its prison cells only for those who present an active danger to life and property, it could greatly cut its corrections budget.

That would start with releasing most older prisoners, regardless of their crime, who have served 10 years or more, says University of Michigan Professor J.J. Prescott, who co-authored a paper with UM law school colleagues Benjamin Kyle and Sonja Starr on recidivism rates among older inmates.

What they found defies conventional thinking that someone sent to prison for a violent crime is more likely to harm others if released. Not true, the UM team found. Inmates over age 55, even those who have been convicted of murder, present an extremely low risk of leaving prison and committing another crime of any sort.

Among older homicide convicts who have been released, 99 percent will not repeat their offense.

“We’re keeping 99 people in prison who will never commit another violent crime to stop one who might,” Prescott says. “If we don’t have a lot of cash to spare and we’ve got to find a place to cut, then the findings are relevant.”

And that’s where Michigan is today. The choice is between locking away people who are no longer dangerous at a cost of roughly $40,000 a year each, or using that money to hold our schools harmless during this budget crisis.

It ought to be an easy call.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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