After Michigan’s record high prison population in 2007 of 51,554 there were five consecutive years of decline in the inmate population followed by two years of small growth in 2012 and 2013 resulting in a total of 43,704 inmates at the end of 2013. The Michigan Department of Corrections Prison Population Projection Report from February of 2014 predicts this slight increase to continue for several years. The main driving factors behind their projections are an increase in new admissions and the decreasing proportion of the prison population that will be eligible for parole. Currently 12% of inmates are serving life sentences and 69% have yet to reach their earliest release date and these numbers are expected to increase.
In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010 Michigan’s prison population grew at a rate 29 times higher than the general population. As of 2009 the average time served for an inmate in Michigan was 6.3 years compared to the national average of 2.6 leaving Michigan with the 5th longest prison times in the country. Compared to other Great Lakes States, Michigan inmates stayed in prison for an average of 16 months longer from 1990 to 2005. The advocacy group Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending (CAPPS) which supports lower the prison population attributes the longer stay for Michigan inmate to a higher rate of parole denial at first eligibility. In their report “Denying Parole at First Eligibility: How Much Public Safety Does It Actually Buy?” CAPPS points to a change in the state parole board in 1992 which changed the board from a civil servant position to an appointed position. The new parole board saw a decline in parole approvals, a decline that was much sharper for homicide or sex offenders. The proportion of inmates who were held longer than their earliest release date in 1991 was 16% and rose to 31% by 2006. Parole approvals for sex offenders were at 13% in 2006 while offenders whose crime involved a death had parole approval rates of 28% in the same year. CAPPS believes the appointed parole board was more likely to make parole decisions based on the type of offense committed instead of the risk of re-offending once released.
In CAPPS’s report they point to the rates of re-offending based on original offense are a reasonable way to judge the risk of a paroled inmate ending up in prison again. CAPP’s data runs from 1986 to 1999 and during that period 63% of released inmate did not reenter prison in the four years after their release and of those that did 20% were returned for parole violations and another 18% with new sentences for new crimes committed. The paroled inmates that were returned to prison for new crimes were most often returned for larceny and drug offenses, only 4.5% were returned for a crime against a person. Those initially convicted for larceny or motor vehicle offenses were most likely to repeat their offenses. For homicide offenders 2.7% were returned for a new crime against a person and .5% for another homicide. Of paroled sex offenders 4.2% were returned for a new crime against a person and 3.1% for another sex offense. CAPPS points out that for inmates that maxed out their sentences were 50% more likely to return to prison than parolees but that the return rates based on original offense reflect return rates for paroled inmates with homicide and sex offenders returning least often and larceny offenders being most likely to reoffend. For CAPPS this shows that the length of time served by inmates has little impact on their risk of offending and in fact serving more time can increase the risk of returning to prison. The rate of parole approval at earliest release date was 61.4% over this period with motor vehicle offenders being paroled at the highest rate of 78.8% and sex offenders being paroled at the lowest rate of 32.6%. The overall parole approval rate exceeds 90% within two years of the earliest release rate. Under the new appointed parole board the average length of stay for most crimes did not increase (based on parole decisions, not on longer sentences) but the average stay for robbery offenders increased by 10 months, homicide offenders by 12 months, and 16 months for sex offenders.
State Representative Joe Haveman has been working to reform Michigan’s corrections policies. In 2012 he worked for the passage of a bill that allowed some juvenile offenders to expunge their records if they stayed out of trouble. Currently Haveman, who is the Republican that chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is trying to create a state sentencing commission that would be able to propose criminal penalties based off data and best practices from around the country. Representative Haveman himself comes from a very conservative district but he feels that voter opinions on incarceration have changed rapidly and most people no longer believe that simply keeping people in prison is a workable solution. However, other legislators are not as willing to move on reform during an election year. Last year a U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Haveman introduced legislation to allow inmates serving life sentences from crimes committed as minors to seek new sentences based on the Supreme Court’s decision. State Attorney General Bill Schuette stated that only juveniles’ sentences after the Supreme Court’s ruling were able to seek new sentences and legislators agreed and then stripped the provision allowing parole hearings for inmates sentenced to life as juveniles before the ruling.
Another aspect of prison reform that CAPPS and Representative Haveman agree on is the rising cost of prisons. According to a CAPPS presentation titled “How we can safely reduce Michigan’s $2 billion corrections budget” the group points out that while the prison population has decreased from the peak in 2007, spending has remained at 2007 levels and has even increased. This cost is mainly attributed to personnel costs for corrections employees and increased costs for prisoner medical care. Currently 18% of prisoners are 50 years old or older and as the number of older inmates increases, health care costs will rise with them. The reason the number of older inmates has increased is also attributed to Michigan’s longer than average time served for prisoners. CAPPS compares the increased spending on corrections to the decreased spending on higher education pointing out that from 2005 to 2014 Corrections spending has increased 16.4% while higher education spending has decreased by 16.7% over the same period. General Fund spending for 2014 has corrections at 21% and higher education at 12.1% while the cost per inmate in 2014 is currently at $35,856. CAPPS advocates for the release or parole of elderly or ill inmates as they pose little risk to the public while being very expensive prisoners to house.
Both CAPPS and Representative Haveman would like the state to focus on increasing parole approvals for low risk prisoners and improving programs designed to help paroled inmates reintegrate into society and further reduce their risk of reoffending. Since the Michigan Department of Corrections projects small but continuing increases in the prison population over the coming years and predicted increasing costs for corrections in Michigan it is likely that more efforts will be made to reform Michigan’s prisons and parole practices.
Michigan Department of Corrections Report to the Legislature: Prison Population Projection Report February 2014
Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending (CAPPS) “Denying Parole at First Eligibility: How Much Public Safety Does It Actually Buy?”
CAPPS “How we can safely reduce Michigan’s $2 billion corrections budget”
Detroit Free Press: Brian Dickerson: Fewer prisons - and yet, less crime
The Pew Center on the States “Time Served:The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms”