Jan. 20, 2011 | Barbara R. Levine, Detroit Free Press
Barbara R. Levine is executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.
Proponents of Michigan’s unique “truth in sentencing” scheme must answer two questions. What benefits make it worth the huge expense? And why do they think they are right and everyone else is wrong?
For decades, Michigan, like other states, awarded prisoners generous amounts of time off for good behavior — or “good time.” But a 1978 initiative petition prohibited these awards.
Then, in 1982, faced with dangerous overcrowding, the Legislature adopted a more modest system of “disciplinary credits.” Since accumulated credits can be lost, prisoners had a strong incentive to follow the rules. Nonetheless, credits just made people eligible for parole consideration sooner; they did not require that anyone be released.
In 1998, “truth in sentencing” legislation took a big step backward. It eliminated not only disciplinary credits, but also transition programs for people nearing parole. Over the last decade, it has required thousands of additional prison beds and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.