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Michigan prison sentences, longest in US, under review

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Prisoners in Michigan serve longer sentences than in any other state. That's according to a recent Pew study, which finds lengthy sentences have bloated the state's corrections budget. Michigan spends more than two billion dollars a year on prisons.

A state commission last month launched a bipartisan review to assess where Michigan stands compared to the rest of the country.

The average sentence in Michigan is 4.3 years. That compares with a national average of 2.9 years.

Russ Marlan is with the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says part of  the reason behind Michigan's longer prison terms has to do with the state's unique sentencing guidelines.

"Judges can either send someone to prison or sanction them with a community-based sanction," he said. "And I think when you look at county level data, there's a huge disparity between judges and counties for the same crime, same criminal history, who goes to prison and who doesn't."

Anne Yantus  is with the State Appellate Defender’s office.

She says Michigan's prison population has grown faster than the state's general population and the crime rate. She says increased sentences have not necessarily lowered crime rates.

"In the fourteen years since we've had these guidelines take affect in January of '99, the Legislature has gone in and sort of on a piecemeal basis has increased the recommended ranges and moved crimes into higher crime categories," she said.

Yantus and Marlan say longer sentences mean an older prison population. That means more health care costs. Marlan says some prisoners spend up to twice as long in prison than they would in another state.

Unlike most states, Michigan establishes both a minimum and maximum sentence for a crime. According to Marlan, minimums are determined based on a point system, while maximums are "arbitrarily" decided by legislators. 

Marlan and Yantus say the commission is expected to make policy recommendations some time next year.

 -Sarah Kerson, Michigan Radio Newsroom