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The Prison Blues

Jack Lessenberry

What’s being called a major battle over the state’s prison budget is taking shape in Lansing. To save money, John Proos, the chair of the relevant state senate subcommittee, wants to close two prisons, and lease and operate a now-private prison in Baldwin.

However, those who run the Department of Corrections don’t want to close any of the state’s 35 prisons, and say they need them in case the state prison population ever rises again.

Michigan had more than 51,000 inmates nine years ago, but that number has declined by almost 10,000 over the last decade. That’s largely because violent crime has declined, and because we are less willing to sentence people to long prison terms for small amounts of drugs. 

Who says there isn’t any good news? Still, 40,000 prisoners is more than twice as many as 30 years ago – and is a huge drain on state resources, costing us more than $2.2 billion a year, far more than the state spends on higher education. If I wanted to be nasty, I could say that Michigan places a higher priority on locking people up than on educating them.

Naturally, I’d never be the least bit sarcastic about state government. But I would tend to support closing two prisons and using the money saved – about $15 million – to make badly needed repairs in other badly aging prison buildings. On the other hand, I think the legislature is wrong and fundamentally cruel in opposing money the governor has requested for a new drug to cure some cases of Hepatitis C, which is rampant in prisons. 

However, having said all that, this entire discussion misses the point. Michigan doesn’t need to save nickels and dimes in our corrections system; we need fundamental sweeping reform. 

Basically, as any real non-political expert on prisons will tell you, we need to concentrate on locking up, as the saying goes, only those people we are legitimately afraid of, not all the ones we are mad at. Nor do we need to keep inmates locked up who may have been a threat to society in 1957, but who are now running up tremendous costs in geriatric medical care.

We are paying far more for corrections than other nearby states, and there are all sorts of reasons why. We sentence inmates to longer terms, and make them wait longer for parole. A Bridge Magazine study last year found 11 inmates in the slam just for using marijuana.

Locking them up costs us $35,000 each per year. We could send them to college more cheaply. Two years ago, there was a growing bipartisan move for serious prison reform. The Lansing-based group CAPPS, Citizens’ Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, put forth a reasonable blueprint for cutting the prison population by another 10,000 inmates.

But any efforts at reform were torpedoed by Attorney General Bill Schuette, who wants to run for governor, and evidently feels it important to look tough on crime.

Thanks to that attitude, we go on paying tens of millions every year in health care costs for hundreds of inmates in their seventies and eighties, and not properly fixing our roads. There are indeed words for such priorities.

But irrational is the only one I can say on the radio.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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