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Criminal justice reform: Lawmakers work to lower costs, increase opportunity

Posted at 5:16 PM, Mar 06, 2017

LANSING, Mich. — Saving taxpayer money while reducing the number of inmates locked up in prison is the goal of new bipartisan reforms being pushed by state lawmakers.

More than 42,000 people are currently incarcerated in Michigan, which costs an estimated $2 billion each year, making the Michigan Department of Corrections budget the single largest expenditure in the state budget.

The average annual cost of a single inmate is $34,000.

Reforms recently passed by the state Senate are designed to reduce those costs by creating a system designed to help inmates stay out of prison after their release.

The goal is to reduce recidivism and consequently reduce crime, said House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt.

“This is not about being soft on crime, this is about being smart on crime," Leonard told FOX 17 on Monday.

Members of the House are expected to vote on the package of bills before week's end. Leonard indicated the reforms are a top priority in the House.

“It ought to be a priority for our state," he said.

Among the changes in the proposed reforms:

  • Providing credits to businesses willing to hire people on parole or probation
  • Create a "Parole Sanction Certainty" program to provide additional supervision of paroles
  • Create a database to track how many former inmates return to prison, provide quarterly reports on recidivism to lawmakers
  • Require prisoners who are 18-22 years old be housed only with prisoners within the same age range
  • Minimize punishment for “technical” probation violations
  • Well-behaved probationers would be given opportunity to reduce the period of state supervision by half

"This is about rehabilitating those individuals who are going to get out by getting them training and helping them to find jobs," Leonard said. "So once they get out of prison, hopefully they become productive members of society and they’re not out committing another crime costing us $40,000 a year for the next two to three decades.”

Leonard also says the average cost to the state of a person on parole or probation stands about $3,400 annually, which pales in comparison to the cost of incarceration.

However, unlike similar reforms pushed during the previous legislative session, these latest reform efforts do not include a controversial “presumptive parole” proposal.

That's a problem for prison reforms advocates like Doug Tjapkes with West Michigan-based Humanity for Prisoners, who argues the particular proposal could have helped speed up a well-behaved prisoner's release if they had already served a minimum sentence.

"If a judge sentences somebody to seven to 15 years, if that prisoner abides by all the rules then I think the judge meant for him to be out in seven years," Tjapkes said. "Yet the parole board can still decide—and this happens time and again—'Well, we don’t think so.'"

The presumptive parole measure was sidelined due in large part to vocal opposition from Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette.

"We have 10 members on the parole board, we’ve got 42,000 people in prison now," Tjapke said. "The parole board’s just flooded... and as a result I don’t think prisoners are getting a fair shake."

Tjapkes became involved in advocacy in the mid-1990s after developing a friendship with Maurice Carter, a man who was later found to be wrongfully convicted of shooting a police officer. Carter died shortly after his release from Hepatitis C, which he unknowingly contracted in prison because he was never informed of it by prison doctors, Tjpakes said.

Tjapkes says the handling of prisoners' healthcare, especially those with mental illnesses, must remain a top priority even if not addressed in these latest reforms efforts.

Leonard contends it is a priority, acknowledging nearly a quarter of the state's prison population suffers some time of mental illness.

"These bills do not address that specific issue, but that is something we’re going to continue to work on as well," Leonard say, emphasizing that incarcerating individuals with mental illness can cost more than double that of an average inmate.

"If we really want to lower prison costs, we need to get those suffering mental illness the help they need so they’re not costing us."