Reform Michigan corrections guidelines


Michigan spends more money on corrections than on higher education — about $2 billion annually, or $35,000 per prisoner. It’s one of just a few states that continues to spend so much, despite data over the past several years that shows decreasing the number of people in prison correlates to decreased crime rates.

Michigan should follow the trend of most other states by reforming corrections and sentencing guidelines, which are currently inconsistent. Doing so would reduce crime, conserve taxpayer dollars, and most importantly, reduce inequality among those charged with similar offenses.

From 1980 to 2010, the state’s prison population grew 29 times faster than the general population, peaking in 2006. State spending on corrections skyrocketed, too.

Then between 2007 and 2012, Michigan’s rate of incarceration decreased 12 percent, to 441 prisoners per 100,000 residents, according to a 2013 study from Pew Center for the States. Crime dropped 17 percent during the same time.

Changes to sentencing, including revising a law that put people in prison for life for possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin, helped bring the rate down. Fewer offenders were sent to prison in general, and other factors contributed to the decrease.

But now the rate has again crept up slightly since 2012, and spending remains high. Michigan Department of Corrections employs more than 15,000 people to guard almost 43,000 prisoners in their jails alone.

In financially-distressed Wayne County, jail guards and corporals make more than $100,000 annually with overtime, some much more than that.

Justification for spending huge sums on what are dangerous and difficult jobs is debatable. But there’s no way around the large sum state and local budgets spend on corrections.

The Michigan Law Revision Commission, with the help of the Council on State Governments (CSG), is rightly looking to reform these sentencing and probation policies to make the system fairer and less expensive.

Of the 35 states Pew studied from 1990 to 2009, Michigan had one of the highest increases in time served: 79 percent and an average of more than four years. Further study shows 24 percent of those prisoners could have served terms that were shorter by three months to two years, without threatening public safety.

Introducing reforms that streamline sentencing procedures and reduce mandatory minimums — for nonviolent offenders — could have reduced the state’s prison population by as much as 6 percent, or 3,300 people, and saved $92 million.

Lawmakers should look to clarify sentencing rules upfront so there is less discrepancy in punishments and more predictability at initial sentencing.

They should also set clear criteria for probation, and remove recommended sentences from investigations that happen before sentencing has taken place.

Focusing more on a defendant’s likelihood of another offense and working within streamlined parameters will produce better results in the long run.

Communities can also focus their resources on providing better re-entry and rehabilitation programs to get nonviolent offenders back on their feet.

There’s no defense for breaking the law. Violent and repeat offenders in particular should be punished and closely monitored.

But for offenders not in those categories, sentencing discrepancies impact lifetimes of families and individuals. The state should focus on rehabilitation and sentencing reform to create an efficient, effective crime prevention system.