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Prison Blues

Michigan is one of only a handful of states that spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. This is a disgrace, and isn’t doing very much for either our budget or our future.

The reasons for this are both complex and simple. The societal reasons are complex, of course, and have been addressed at length by people more knowledgeable than I.

The technical reasons are far simpler.  Thirty years ago, there were only about 13,000 inmates in Michigan prisons. Five years ago, the figure had ballooned to more than 51,000.

What happened? Well, not any major crime wave. Mostly, this was the result of two very stupid policy decisions. We decided that instead of just locking up those people we were justifiably afraid of, we’d lock up those who we were mad at, or whose life style we disapproved, mainly those involved in small-time drug dealing.

And we decided to close most state mental institutions. Lots of those folks have ended up in our prisons instead.

Belatedly, our lawmakers realized this was becoming an enormous problem, especially when the state budget crises began and the great recession hit, and a number of programs were started to try to do something about the cost and the population explosion.

And they have seen some modest success. As of last fall, Michigan’s prison population had fallen by more than 8,000 from its all-time high, and the state had begun closing some no-longer needed prison facilities.

To some extent, this may have been due to the aging of our average population; older people commit fewer crimes.

But the state also launched a much ballyhooed prisoner release program, called the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative. It was designed to help ex-convicts safely blend back into society.

To do this, it has been giving ex-convicts aid for things like housing, health care and education. This seemed like an excellent idea, but when it was announced I feared that it was only a matter of time until someone paroled under the system would commit some terrible crime, and the politicians would pounce. And yesterday, indeed, the program took a double whammy. A state audit showed the program was only moderately effective, suffered from poor record-keeping and was inadequately monitored.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, a Democrat facing a tough re-election battle this year, immediately denounced the program, saying the state was “more interested in budget cutting than public safety.”  Indeed, two paroled prisoners in her county have been charged with killing an elderly woman in her home. It’s not clear if they were part of this program, but that’s politics.

No politician ever lost votes by being “tough on crime.“  Well, I don’t know whether this program works. I do know this. We could drastically reduce our prison population at minimal risk if we did two things. First, take the advice of Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack, who has studied the issue deeply, and believes we could release thousands of treatable mentally ill and require them to take their medication. And secondly, review every prisoner’s file and release those, especially the elderly, who are no longer any risk.

For whatever reasons, we haven’t been willing to do either of those things. And it is costing our economy and our future, every day.

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