Six years ago, the superintendent of a small and struggling school district in Gratiot County wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to Governor Rick Snyder asking that his school be declared a prison.
“The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student. “Please provide for my students in my school district the way we provide for a prisoner.” You may say that was grandstanding, but do spend far more per prisoner than we do per student. We spend far more in total on our prisons than we do on higher education in this state.
But the prison population has been dropping. It has now fallen by more than 10,000 from a high of more than 51,00o inmates a few years ago. Successful programs to prevent released inmates from returning to prison have been responsible for much of that.
Legislators have noticed, and the state senate almost unanimously passed a budget that would cut the $2 billion dollar prison budget by $41 million next year.
The issue is now before the state house.
Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, opposes these cuts. When I was asked about this by Morning Edition host Doug Tribou earlier this week, I said that if we had only 20 inmates, some prison bureaucrats would still want to keep 20 prisons open. I was exaggerating and being flip, but that does reflect a certain bureaucratic attitude.
However, I had a good conversation yesterday with Chris Gautz, the thoughtful spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“We’re not saying there is nothing to cut,” he said, but added that “the senate has been using misleading numbers and we need the discussion to focus on basic facts.”
Essentially, he argued that the bill would make the wrong cuts in the wrong places and that it would cause the prison system to lay off nearly 400 workers, making them less safe.
Gautz told me that besides the cuts, the senate bill adds a number of programs corrections doesn’t want, such as a worthless online high school diploma program. Meanwhile, they’d cut the highly successful, money-saving wrap program in Wayne County, a residential alternative to prison program that changes attitudes and instills job skills.
“We are focused on saving money,” Gautz told me, insisting that” we want fewer prisoners so that we can close prisons.” Two things he does support that would provide real results are presumptive parole, which would speed up the release time of well-behaved prisoners who had served their minimum sentences. Unfortunately, that was blocked by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who seems focused on looking tough on crime.
Finding a way to release several hundred elderly prisoners, whose medical care is costing the department huge sums, would make sense too, but as he said “We can’t do that without legislation.” I came away not sure he was totally right, but convinced the lawmakers trying to do prison reform ought to give the people running this vast system more of a hearing.
The best idea might be for an independent commission to do a detailed study of Michigan’s prisons and make recommendations for safe cost-savings.
That is, if we could get the legislators to read it.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.