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Snyder administration to cut program that has saved hundreds of millions in prison costs

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The State of Michigan spends a huge part of its budget on prisons. In recent years a new program has helped reduce the prison population and helped prisoners stay out of prison. Despite its success, the state plans to cut much of the program’s funding.

Some people who’ve been in and out of prison are getting out and staying out thanks to a program called Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative or MPRI.

“After 33 years of doing time, they finally got it right. And today I’ve got a life. I own my own business. I’m living the American dream and it started at MPRI,” Harry Hampton said.

Hampton has been in prison four times. When he’s been released before, he got no help.

“I didn’t know what to do but to go back to what I was used to: selling drugs, using drugs, being a womanizer, living off of other people, never having my own place. So, I didn’t know how to come back and get into the mainstream of society,” Hampton said.

That changed when he got out this time. People with the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative in Washtenaw County got him a place to stay, helped him get a job.

MPRI is operated by community organizations in each county. In Washtenaw County, it’s operated by Catholic Social Services. Mary King coordinates it.

“Once we get people stabilized in housing, whether that’s back with their families or in our housing, then we help them find employment and that is no easy task.”

MPRI staff persuade landlords to take in parolees, letting them know the house will be closely monitored by them and law enforcement. It persuades employers to give parolees a chance, noting they’ll show up for work because they’d risk going back to prison otherwise. MPRI also works with the parolee to get that person get what they need to stay out of trouble and ultimately out of prison.

The Department of Corrections admits the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative has saved the state a lot of money.

“We dropped a significant number of prisoners through the parole process by using our reentry program, saving hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Russ Marlan with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The prison population has dropped from a high of 51,554 inmates to 43,300 now.

But, an Auditor General’s report found the Department of Corrections didn’t have appropriate rules on how the MPRI money was spent by the community organizations to help the parolees.

Once the Snyder administration started tightening the rules, it also started cutting back. The successful prisoner reentry program once had a budget of $20 million. Next year it will be $12 million.

Critics say that amounts to the Department of Corrections dismantling a wildly successful program.

Russ Marlan says the community organizations sometimes spend too freely. He says it’s outrageous to pay for things such as a $100 taxi cab fare for a parolee to get to a job interview.

“There was a lot of money that was being spent that I think any reasonable person would feel shouldn’t have been spent,” Marlan said.

He adds if the cuts cause the recidivism rate to go up, the Department of Corrections can suggest budget changes in the future.

Harry Hampton doesn’t understand why the Department of Corrections would cut MPRI when it’s been so successful helping parolees like him become productive members of society.

I asked him what would have happened if MPRI hadn’t been there to help him.

“I hate to say this, sincerely, I hate to say this, but I’d probably be back in prison, dead, or smoking crack.”

But he’s not. He's working. With the help of MPRI and a friend, he’s now owner/operator of a transportation service called There and Back.

“Life is good. Life is good," Hampton said as he started his van to drive back to work.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.