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Michigan's tough sentencing guidelines may need to be reformed

California inmates will be housed in a Baldwin prison beginning in 2011
Flickr user Still Burning
Flickr Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
California inmates will be housed in a Baldwin prison beginning in 2011

It was 1998 when Michigan's lawmakers voted to approve tougher "lock 'em up policies."

Some may argue whether that made Michigan any safer, but one thing cannot be argued: Michigan leads the nation in average time served by inmates: 4.3 years. That's 48% higher than the national average of 2.9 years. That's according to a 2012 national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And these tough sentencing guidelines are exacting a cost from the state's collective "wallet." Michigan's corrections budget currently exceeds $2 billion.

The state sentencing guidelines have not been reviewed for 15 years.

In response, the Michigan Law Review Commission has launched a bipartisan review to figure out just where Michigan stands when compared to the rest of the nation, and where reform might be needed.

“We do have a large number of people in prison right now . . . and the increase has been much greater than the rise in the state’s population or the rise in crime generally,” said Anne Yantuss, a managing attorney for the State Appellate Defender's Office.  

According to her, the guidelines were tougher on violent crimes, but over the past 14 years, the Legislature has gone in and increased recommended sentence ranges and moved crimes into higher crime categories.

Michigan hit its all-time high in prison population in March 2007 at 51,554, making us the fifth largest prison system in the U.S.

Today, the prison population has dropped to about 43,300.

“This is kind of a national movement to take a look at corrections, criminal justice policy, and try to be smart on crime,” said Russ Marlan of the Michigan Department of Corrections. “You can talk about Minnesota and other states, but they don’t have four of the top ten most violent cities in the country, Saginaw, Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit.”

Currently, the Michigan Law Revision Commission and outside experts are analyzing five years worth of data to come up with recommendations for policy revisions. Marlan believes we might see the results of that analysis sometime next year.

And there have been some changes in social latitudes towards crime and punishment.

“There’s some recognition that longer sentences don’t necessarily rehabilitate the offender any more than maybe a slightly shorter sentence,” said Yantuss. 

“It’s a very unique time, it’s an interesting time, but it’s an exciting time because I think we’re seeing the opportunity to really enhance our criminal justice system here and use our tax dollars most effectively for the citizens of Michigan,” Marlan said.

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio News

Listen to the full interview above.

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