January 10, 2010  |  The Detroit Free Press editorial

This is an excerpt from a Detroit Free Press editorial calling for criminal justice reforms to reduce corrections spending. The list of reforms it calls for are still relevant today.

. . . The state’s 36 prisons now hold roughly 46,400 inmates — the fewest since 2001 — after peaking at 51,554 in March 2007. Caruso expects the population to fall below 45,000 by year’s end.

In the past, longer prison stays had pushed corrections costs higher. Michigan inmates have been serving, on average, 127% of their court-ordered minimum sentences — well beyond other states that offer parole, reports the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Six years ago, Michigan prisons held an outlandish 17,000 inmates — more than a third of the population — who were parole-eligible. Still, a recent study by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending found no correlation between time served and the likelihood of reoffending.

“Keeping thousands of people locked up longer than was needed for public safety has been a big cause of Michigan’s prison growth,” said CAPPS Executive Director Barbara Levine.

Steps to save state money

Granholm and Caruso have gotten the ball rolling, with positive results. Now the Legislature has got to help continue this process, with several steps:

  • Restore good-time credits. A House bill would reduce a typical sentence by roughly 15%, lowering Michigan’s prison population by 6,000 and saving the department $107 million a year. It would provide incentives for good behavior and bring Michigan’s system in line with the rest of the country. Michigan is one of only a handful of states that haven’t adopted federal standards for truth-in-sentencing, making inmates eligible for parole after serving 85% of their sentence.
  • Approve new sentencing guidelines to divert hundreds of offenders from prison to lower-cost community corrections programs such as drug courts, electronic tethers, community service and jails. Such programs would save tens of millions of dollars a year, even after reimbursing counties for community-based alternatives.
  • Repeal Michigan’s notorious juvenile lifer law, which has rightly drawn fire from human rights groups worldwide. The law has forced judges to give kids as young as 14 the maximum adult penalty of life without parole. More than 300 Michigan inmates are serving such sentences. Giving them a shot at parole would likely save millions of dollars.
  • Release chronically ill and dying inmates, saving the state millions of dollars a year in health care costs. The commutation and parole process for terminally ill inmates is far too cumbersome. About a dozen terminally ill inmates, recommended for commutations by the governor’s Executive Clemency Advisory Council, have died before release. In cases in which inmates have a year or less to live, the state ought to waive requirements for a public hearing.
  • Create a temporary and separate parole board to review a backlog of hundreds of parolable lifer cases. In the class-action Kenneth Foster-Bey case, U.S. District Judge Marianne Battani, in 2007, declared that the constitutional rights of more than 1,000 inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole have been violated since state parole policies toughened in 1992.
  • Ensure that releases and paroles are not delayed because prisoners could not take programs stipulated by the Parole Board, such as the assaultive offenders program. Providing adequate programs is far cheaper than delaying the release of offenders, at a cost to the state of $35,000 a year each.

Read>> Reforms can safely cut prison population