Click to read online at

William G. Milliken: Time to reverse Michigan’s failed, costly imprisonment policies

Failed policies of the past have kept people in prison long beyond the time they were safe to release, former Gov. William G. Milliken says. 

William G. Milliken was governor of Michigan from 1969 to 1983, making him the longest serving governor in Michigan history.

By William G. Milliken

Over the years, I have watched the size and cost of the Michigan prison population skyrocket, due to so-called “tough” policies that have not kept us safer and have cost our state billions.

We “threw away the key” and kept people locked up long beyond the time they were safe to release. In fact, the Pew Center on the States found that Michigan had the longest average prison length of stay of any of the 35 states they studied in 2009. After decades of experience and years of research, we now know that simply keeping people longer does not keep us safer.

As governor, I contributed to the problem by supporting extremely harsh mandatory minimum drug laws in the late 1970s. After it became apparent that the drug laws had not accomplished what either the legislature or I had intended, I then spent years working with organizations to support reforms that were signed into law by Gov. John Engler over a decade ago.

It is long past time for political leaders of both parties to reverse the remaining criminal justice policies that led to a huge increase in our prison population with no payoff in public safety — and that have cost taxpayers around $2 billion a year.

That’s why I was so pleased by Gov. Rick Snyder’s leadership on these issues in his May Special Message on Criminal Justice. The governor rightly highlighted the need for smarter use of our jails and prisons, including reforms that would safely reduce our current prison population, such as presumptive parole. He also called for investing more to both prevent crime and address its root causes.

I was also very pleased by the widespread conservative and liberal praise for the June report by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS): 10,000 Michigan prisoners: Strategies to reach the goal. I have worked with CAPPS for years and I strongly encourage legislators to review their policy recommendations that provide a detailed road map for smart sentencing and parole reforms.

The report examines key factors that have led to a striking increase in the prisoner population over the past three decades and demonstrates that population is driven not by crime rates, but by deliberate policy choices. It examines in detail the sentencing and parole policies that have led to increases in the prison population. It makes detailed policy recommendations that could safely reduce our prison population by at least 10,000 prisoners over five years, at a savings of nearly $250 million annually.

That kind of savings would make a real difference for our state, where we spend more on prisons every year than we spend on higher education – and keep prisoners behind bars longer than the national norm.

Finally, the 8-1 bipartisan vote by the House Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, on the presumptive parole reform bill, HB 4138 (H-4)* is another encouraging sign that we are starting to overcome the politics of fear with leadership grounded in evidence.

I have personally corresponded with many prisoners who have been kept years beyond the time they could have safely returned to their families and communities. This bill is an essential, thoughtfully designed, step on the road to reform.

Unfortunately, there are those who still embrace the failed policies of the past. Three decades ago, we adopted a number of misguided policies that seemed an appropriate response to the challenges of the time.

Now it’s time to adopt new strategies to meet the challenges of 2015.

Again, I applaud the leadership of Gov. Snyder and Rep. Heise on these issues. I encourage the full House and Senate to provide their support by enacting long overdue, safe and sensible parole reform


* Read more about HB 4138 (H-4)