We know by now that Michigan’s prison population is falling. From the high of 51,515 people reached in 2006, our state’s prison population has fallen 23 percent to 39,666 as of the end of 2017. To understand why that is happening, it’s good to examine how that population figure can change.

Two things affect that prison population number: the number of people entering prison, and the number of people leaving it. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the number of people entering. The Michigan Department of Corrections calls these “prison commitments.” Prison commitments can come from a few sources, including people who are newly sentenced, people who are returned to prison following violations of parole, people who are sent to prison after a probation violation and those who have an additional sentence added during an existing prison stay.

Of those four avenues to prison, people who are newly sentenced comprise the largest group, accounting for about 52 percent of all prison commitments in 2017. The next largest group was probation violations, which comprised about a quarter of all prison sentences that year. Parole violations accounted for about 12 percent of prison commitments that year, and additional sentences imposed about 11 percent. In all 9,188 people received prison sentences last year.

However, it’s important to note that the number of people being sentenced to prison has fallen substantially since Michigan’s prison population hit its high mark. That year, 2006, 12,859 people were sentenced to prison. By 2017, that number had fallen to 9,188 — a 40 percent drop.

But why? John Cooper, Safe & Just Michigan’s Executive Director, points to two trends playing a role in the decrease in the number of prison sentences.

“Main driver of the reduced intake to prison is that fewer felonies are being prosecuted and that’s a function of the crime rate being lower,” said Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John Cooper.

Further statistics from the FBI bear that out. In 2006, 526.4 people out of every 100,000 in Michigan residents could expect to be the victim of a violent crime, and 3,212.8 of every 100,000 Michiganders experienced a property crime. By 2017, those numbers had fallen to 450 of every 100,000 and 1,800 of every 100,000, respectively — a drop of 20 percent for violent crime and 44 percent for property crime.

Some of the steepest declines were seen in robbery (down 53.7 percent), burglary (down 52.5 percent) and auto theft (down 60.3 percent). It should be noted that the incidence of rape increased 35.3 percent, but the FBI’s definition of rape also changed in that time, so it’s not possible to draw conclusive comparisons between the two years.

Fewer felony crimes being committed in Michigan translated into fewer felony cases coming before judges, and fewer opportunities for prison sentences. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that prison intake has fallen considerably between 2006 and 2017.

“We’re sending fewer people to prison than we have historically, and that’s a good thing,” Cooper said. “That’s because crime rates are down. Even since 2010, crime rates are down 25 percent.”

A second factor helping drive down the number of prison commitments is the role problem-solving courts are playing. These courts — including sobriety courts, courts for people with mental health challenges and courts for veterans — can provide alternatives to prison if someone agrees to a substance use and community-based supervision. Michigan’s first sobriety courts date back to pilot programs in the mid-1990s, but the Veterans Treatment Courts and Mental Health Courts are more recent. There’s evidence emerging that these courts are playing a role in keeping people out of prison.

In 2017, for instance, Michigan’s Drug and Sobriety, Mental Health and Veterans Treatment courts successfully discharged 2,217 people’s cases after they successfully met the requirements of their program. This kept many of those people home with their families rather than being sent to prison, where they might have been sent before these problem-solving courts existed. While it’s not immediately clear how many of these people would have been sentenced to prison otherwise — for instance, they may have been sentenced to jail or to probation —these innovative programs are making a real difference for the people who need them.

In our next blog post in this series, we’ll take start to look at the length of prison sentences, and how that affects the number of people in Michigan prisons.