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Longer sentences fuel big budget for Michigan prisons

April 26, 2013
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LANSING — Despite a declining prison population, the average Michigan prisoner is spending more time behind bars — at significant taxpayer expense.

Michigan inmates spend on average 4.3 years in prison, while the national average is 2.9 years, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust. The disparity is even greater among violent criminals: 7.6 years on average in Michigan compared to five years nationally.

Some experts argue longer prison stints do little to deter crime or reduce recidivism and therefore only swell the Corrections Department budget.

Corrections Director Daniel Heyns said the major source of the problem is sentencing.

“Traditionally, Michigan has kept people longer,” Heyns said. “We have a very harsh, more punitive model of corrections, but the unfortunate truth about that is it costs a lot of money.”

Corrections has streamlined its parole process, Heyns said, but he argued length of stay, at its core, is determined by sentencing.

Between 1990 and 2009, the average stay in Michigan prisons increased by almost two years, costing an estimated $471.9 million to keep prisoners locked up longer, according to the Pew study released last year.

Pew Charitable Trust is a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit research center.

Heyns said there needs to be a discussion about sentencing changes soon or the state will continue to pay to keep too many people locked up, often after they are no longer a threat to society.

“It’s always been good politics to say, ‘I’m gonna lock those people up for a long, long time,’” he said. “It may sell well on the campaign trail, but the reality is, if we don’t do anything structurally with sentencing guidelines right now, my population is going to kind of rise slowly,” he said. “When population trends up, the cost of running this operation is going to go up, as well.”

In fact, a variety of bills introduced this year would toughen existing sentences or create new laws carrying prison sentences, such as a proposal from Rep. Tom Hooker, R-Byron Center, which would make failing to report the death or disappearance of a child a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, or a law that went into effect in early April that makes knowingly committing organized retail crime punishable by up to five years in prison sponsored by Rep. Joe Graves, R-Linden.

Longer sentences aren’t unique to Michigan, Ferris State University criminal justice professor Timothy Eklin said. He attributes the increase to a crackdown on drug-related offenses that began in the 1980s. “We’re paying for that today,” Eklin said.

The average stay for drug offenses in Michigan is 2.9 years, while the national average is 2.2 years. According to the Pew study, Michigan’s average stay for drug offenders has risen by 74 percent since 1990.

Eric Lambert, a criminal justice professor at Wayne State University, said because of Michigan’s high crime rate, legislators hoped tougher sentences would deter criminals. In practice, the most effective deterrent is a certainty of being caught, which Lambert said generally is low for crimes other than murder.

“Research indicates that there are many ways you can get more bang for your buck,” he said. “You would see much better results if you spent that money on improving the economy and increasing jobs rather than on locking people up.”

Holding prisoners, particularly those convicted of nonviolent crimes, for longer stretches doesn’t improve public safety, Lambert said. More prisoners means less access to rehabilitation programs for those who need them most, especially with dwindling funding.

“You can be tough on crime, but there are times when you go overboard, and Michigan has done this with many of its draconian sentences for nonviolent and drug-related offenses,” he said.

Despite lengthy incarceration times, Michigan maintains one of the highest crime rates in the upper Midwest, Lambert said.

While Michigan was ramping up prison stays, Illinois was doing the opposite.

Between 1990 and 2005, Illinois reduced its average length of stay by about seven months to 1.7 years. In 2005, it was a year below the national average for time served for violent and drug-related crimes. The Pew report calculated that holding prisoners for less time saved Illinois $476 million.

“Detroit and Chicago are big cities and they have a lot of crime, but there are substantial differences in what they do with prisoners in Illinois and Michigan,” Lambert said.

Despite Heyns’ pleas for changes in sentencing laws, there is no such legislation pending.

Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the growing corrections budget is a longstanding problem, and though some legislators are looking into sentencing guidelines, he expects no change in the near future.

Although his committee deals with the policy arm of the criminal justice system, Bieda said it also considers costs, particularly because corrections takes up a substantial amount of the state’s expenditures. Gov. Rick Snyder wants more than $2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We need to reexamine a lot of this, and I’m not sure what the answer is at this point,” Bieda said. “But the important thing is knowing all the issues at hand when going into something like this.”

Lambert said many politicians don’t want to appear soft on crime, and much of the public views severity of punishment as the most effective means of deterring crime.

Natalie Holbrook, criminal justice program director for the Ann Arbor-based American Friends Service Committee, said the topic of appropriate sentencing shouldn’t be restricted to legislators but should be discussed across the state.

“We have to have those conversations in our communities and stop sending people to jail literally for the rest of their lives because there is a huge fiscal impact and community impact,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think we can afford it morally, spiritually or fiscally.”

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