We spend far more money on prisons than on higher education in this state, and the old saying is true. You really do reap what you sow. Michigan lags behind our neighboring states when it comes to percentage of highly educated young adults.
But we lead the nation in keeping people locked up. The average Michigan inmate serves 4.3 years, almost a year and a half longer than the national average. We are locking them up, and going broke doing so. We’re spending an average of $34,000 a year to keep each of our forty-three thousand inmates behind bars.
To be fair to the Department of Corrections, it could be worse. Six years ago, there were fifty-one thousand inmates. If that were still the case, and if the department had not privatized food service and adopted other cost savings, the figure would be close to three billion.
But what we are spending is too much, and one courageous and conservative state representative is trying to do something about it. Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, is one of a number of lawmakers interested in possibly shortening sentences.
As he eloquently put it, “being tough on crime above all other concerns simply hasn’t created a safer society.” Thirty years ago, Michigan had barely thirteen thousand inmates. But our prison population then exploded largely as a result of two events.
Lawmakers seeking to fight drugs enacted harsh penalties in the late 1970s, notably the “650 lifer law,“which took away discretion from judges. In 1998, the legislature approved harsher sentencing guidelines which nearly doubled the time served.
But I doubt that people feel safer than they did before all that. Now, a Law Review Commission headed by Governor Snyder’s close confidante Richard McLellan plans a comprehensive, “data-driven” approach to seeing how Michigan can lower prison costs and keep released cons from coming back.
That is a very good idea, but I am afraid it is doomed to fail, for two reasons. One is that there are always politicians who find it easy to demagogue by yelling that the bad guys need to be locked up forever.
The other reasons reforms tend to fail are cases like Patrick Selepak, prisoner who was mistakenly released thanks to a bureaucratic mistake seven years ago, and who promptly tortured and murdered three people. Prison reform is truly necessary, if only to avoid completely bankrupting our society. But we need to look at it in a comprehensive way. Though it has become a cliché, we need to lock away only the people we are legitimately afraid of, not those we are mad at.
Milton Mack, the chief probate judge in Wayne County, has long been interested in prison problems. He believes we could safely release thousands of inmates and save hundreds of millions by moving to sentence them instead to psychiatric help and proper medication. His ideas deserve serious consideration.
And also, as Haveman noted, society would be better off if we could get people out of prison and producing something of value. “I think we are treating the symptoms and not always treating the cause,” he said.
Let’s hope our leaders find the political will to turn this around.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.