For most of its history, Michigan had a generous, progressive “good time” system that reduced a prisoner’s parole eligibility date for every month they did not receive a citation for misconduct. (See: Barbara Levine, Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending, “10,000 Fewer Michigan Prisoners: Strategies to Reach the Goal” (June 2015) at pg. 76, hereinafter described as “10,000 Fewer.”) This incentive system played an important role in limiting length of stay, and therefore, the size and cost of the prison system. It was also believed to have a positive impact on discipline.
Good time in Michigan was eliminated in 1978 through “Proposal B,” a ballot initiative championed by then-Oakland County Prosecutor Brooks Patterson. However, the ensuing prison population increase brought on a overcrowding crisis that prompted the Legislature to introduce a similar incentive system known as disciplinary credits in 1982. This system was subsequently eliminated by passage of the “truth in sentencing” law in 1998, leaving Michigan as one of just a handful of states without any kind of earned time.
This policy has had very significant impacts on the size and cost of Michigan’s prison system.
- Michigan is an Outlier on Sentence Length
Based on average length of stay in prison, Michigan has one of the most punitive criminal justice systems in the county. The Pew Center on the States found that in 2009 Michigan had the longest average length of stay of the 35 states Pew studied. Overall, Michigan prisoners served nearly 17 months more than the national norm. (See 10,000 Fewer, page 31.)
A major reason for this, is Michigan’s harshest-in-the-nation “truth in sentencing” law, which requires all people serving a term of years (about 85 percent of the prison population) to serve every day of their minimum sentence in prison. This policy bans all forms of early release, including “good time.”
The impact of 100 percent of the minimum truth in sentencing – combined with policy changes in the sentencing guidelines adopted alongside the “truth in sentencing” law – was to drive up sentence length system-wide. (Barbara Levine, J.D., Anne Mahar, Ph.D., and Justin Smith, Ph.D., Safe & Just Michigan, “Do Michigan’s Sentencing Guidelines Meet the Legislature’s Goals? A Historical and Empirical Analysis” (Nov. 2021), hereinafter “Sentencing Guidelines Report.”) Since 1998, the average minimum sentence in Michigan’s prison system has increased from 7.1 years to 11.7 years. (Compare Section C1 of the 1998 and 2020 MDOC Statistical Reports.) Likewise, the average age of people in the prison system has increased from 34 to 40. (See the MDOC annual statistical reports.) While this may be due in part to policymakers’ efforts to reserve prison for the most serious cases, research on recidivism and sentence length does not support Michigan’s current approach. (See the Sentencing Guidelines report, pages 24-25.) Indeed, a recent report by Safe & Just Michigan observed that “a large and diverse body of empirical research demonstrating that increased length of stay does not reduce recidivism. That is, keeping people in prison longer does nothing to enhance public safety.” (See the Sentencing Guidelines report, page 25.)
Yet that is the primary justification for eliminating good time, and its main effect.
- There Were Significant Costs to Eliminating Good Time
Eliminating good time has had major impacts on the size and cost of Michigan’s prison system, as the Legislature understood it would in 1998.
When truth in sentencing was passed in 1998, Michigan prisoners were serving (on average) 88 percent of their minimum sentence. (See 10,000 Fewer, page 76.) Less than 15 years later, the Council on State Governments Justice Center found this figure had increased to 125 percent of the minimum. (See 10,000 Fewer, page 42. The increase was also due in part to restrictive parole policies, but the elimination of disciplinary credits was a substantial part of it.) This figure is likely down some today, due to positive changes in parole practices, but with a $2 billion corrections budget and per-prisoner costs of about $45,000 annually (See Robin Risko, “House Fiscal Agency, Budget Briefing: Corrections” (Jan. 2022), page 30), the increase in length of stay due to truth in sentencing likely represents tens of millions of dollars annually.
Consistent with this, we estimated in 2015 that restoring good time would reduce MDOC bedspace needs by 1,255 — enough to close a prison and save tens of millions of dollars annually. Similarly in 2009, House Fiscal Analysis of a proposal to restore good time estimated even more significant bedspace savings — 5,650 within four to six months. (See 10,000 Fewer, page 77.) The impact today would be less because the prison population is about 25 percent smaller, but it would still be significant.
However the impact is calculated, there is little doubt that restoring good time would have a major impact on the size and cost of Michigan’s prison population.
- Good Time is Good Policy
Michigan’s truth in sentencing is the harshest in the nation, and few other states have adopted similar policies. This makes sense: 100 percent of the minimum truth in sentencing is bad policy. It drives up the size and cost of Michigan’s prison system without making Michigan safer. Indeed, if we take into account the opportunity costs of this policy choice, Michigan is less safe than it would be if it spent its public resources on more effective public safety measures.
This policy also negative impacts on the prison system itself. As former MDOC Director Robert Brown, Jr., noted, in contrast to most jurisdictions:
Michigan has allowed “truth-in-sentencing” to increase the average length of stay for tens of thousands of its prisoners. It has also given up a widely accepted incentive system that can be used to reward good conduct, productive work habits and participation in rehabilitative programs, leaving only the threats of punishment and parole denial as management tools.
Indeed, the benefits of good time are widely recognized in Michigan’s jail system, where county sheriffs, who oversee county jails, have the authority to award sheriff’s good time to jail inmates (See MCL 51.282) and routinely do so.
- Good Time is Popular
Finally, the public recognizes that good time is a commonsense policy, and polling reflects this. For example, in a poll of 1,002 registered Michigan voters conducted on behalf of Safe & Just Michigan in February and March 2020, 84 percent of those surveyed supported bringing back good time. (See Dr. Anne Mahar & Sophie Ordway, “Changing the Narrative on Criminal Justice: Michiganders Ready for Reform” (Jan. 2022), page 11.)
The results of this poll are even more striking when broken down by demographic groups. For example:
- 76 percent of conservatives supported bringing back good time, in addition to 86 percent of moderates and 89 percent of liberals.
- Over 80 percent of people surveyed support restoring good time, regardless of geographic location (South/East, Middle/West, North) or education level (high school or less, associates/some college, college).
- 82 percent of crime survivors support restoring good time. (See “Changing the Narrative on Criminal Justice: Michiganders Ready for Reform,” page 11.)
Simply put, public support for restoring good time is both broad and deep across the State of Michigan and demographic groups within it.
For all of these reasons, Michigan should restore good time. It is good policy that is popular and will have a positive financial and human impact on the state of Michigan.
~ John S. Cooper