The following is a transcript conducted via email by Jameson Joyce, a Political Science/Criminal Justice major at Michigan State University, and Daniel Heyns, Director of Michigan Department of Corrections.
Jameson Joyce: Could you explain your background to me in your own way? I have read a little about your experience of course, but I'd love to learn more about what you have done to effect policy regarding the criminal justice system? What policy goals do you have?
Director Heyns: I spent more than three decades in law enforcement at the county level, the last eight of which was as a county Sheriff, before being appoint Director by the Governor in June of 2011. I had a broad range of experiences from running the jail, overseeing the 911 center, commanding the road patrol and managing the budget. These experiences had a profound effect in shaping my current policy goals. I believe the Governor appointed me because I brought a unique perspective to MDOC as he was looking to reinvent Michigan and state government in particular. My policy goals are well laid out in a strategic plan which is in its implementation phase. This is the work of my administrative team but reflects my values and vision for the Department. I will send you a digital copy.
Jameson Joyce: What allies do you have in the legislature? Is there any strategy you use to affect policy?
Director Heyns: I have learned that without legislative partners, my policy initiatives have little chance for success. We have a robust legislative liaison team which works with the house and senate to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions. In addition to working with them on budgeting matters; we weigh in on drafting and pending legislation, constituent issues and a multitude of public safety matters related to corrections. My house and senate appropriation committees have been very helpful in meeting the challenges that face all corrections departments nationally.
Jameson Joyce: Regarding this experience, are there any particular successes you can think of? Have there been any particular setbacks?
Director Heyns: The successes have been many. Our re-entry improvements continue to improve our recidivism numbers and our correctional model in education and vocational training has been updated and is exemplary. Michigan ranks in top five as measured by recidivism. The only setbacks are the length of time it takes to make change. State government moves more slowly than I would like.
Jameson Joyce: How would you describe your political ideology and how has it effected your position on this issue?
Director Heyns: I would say being a Director of Corrections is a lot like being a Sheriff. Most if not all of my decisions are made without regard for political ideology. My policy decisions are based in a close analysis of the data and a respect for safety and security of the people of this State. I am a fiscal conservative and a realist when it comes to balancing of budgets. I am a strong advocate for smart justice and justice reinvestment. I am proud to have kept the MDOC budget relatively flat for the last four years without deteriorating security or service.
Jameson Joyce: Have you found any typical individuals or groups who oppose your efforts? Why do you think that is?
Director Heyns: The “tough on crime” mantra continues to impact corrections in Michigan. This impulse may be good politics but it has a high financial impact. Michigan tends to lock up a lot of offenders and keep them locked for longer than other states. My argument has been, let’s look at these sentencing patterns and see if they give us a true return on investment. Where risk is assessed and diversion is possible, let us be open to other sanctions.
Jameson Joyce: As you have worked to impact policy on this issue, how has your opinion of politics/state government changed?
Director Heyns: When you debate something as sensitive as sentencing guideline reform, you must be prepared for a long debate and be well versed in the data, trends and costs. Successful reform takes time, effort and multiple partners.
Jameson Joyce: I write in a paper that as "tough on crime" laws because popular in the late 70s and 80s, it became an arms race between the national parties to see who could be tougher on crime. Do you believe that is a simplistic assessment?
Director Heyns: There is certainly a case to be made for confining violent offender for the sake of public safety. My background experience made an indelible impression on me in this regard. But to incarcerate people in safe, secure, civilized and constitutionally acceptable conditions is extremely expensive. We need to make sure we get these sentences right. I am not sure about an “arms race” but I do know legislation is constantly being proposed that sets or raises prison term lengths. Since I have been appointed more than 400 bills have been introduced that have prison sanctions or raise the mins and maxs.
Jameson Joyce: What impact do you believe "tough on crime" laws have had?
Director Heyns: The United States has the highest incarceration rates comparatively. Tough on crime had to have played a role in that.
Jameson Joyce: What effect do you believe the War on Drugs has had on crime in the U.S.?
Director Heyns: Much of that has been revised but the impact is still being felt. Michigan had among the post punitive drug laws in the nation.
Jameson Joyce: I have a few remaining questions. How would you describe your position? What exactly does the position of director of MDOC require? I never exactly asked this specific (and important) question.
Director Heyns: I suppose I could write a book as to your first question. I have often said I have spent a lifetime preparing for the challenges of this job. My job requires diplomacy, political skills, negotiation, technical knowledge, vision, integrity, education, a good staff, a thick skin and the backing and support of the Governor. The list is actually much longer but this is a good start.
Jameson Joyce: When you said your liaison team helps with budgeting, does that mean lobbying for increased budgets, or do they merely provide information to help representatives make informed decisions; the way I am understanding your answer is, they provide information to help lawmakers make informed policy decisions, and they help them understand your budgetary needs? Am I understanding this correctly?
Director Heyns: The way the budget process works is a preliminary proposal comes out of the Governor’s Office for all the Departments in State government. DOC drafts our portion of this document which is adjusted by the Governor to reflect his priorities. This document then proceeds to both the House and Senate and both bodies make adjustments per their priorities. These three version are ultimately blended into one that can be approved by the Legislature and signed by the Governor. During this process, there is a great deal of negotiation and is a time when my liaison is so important to advocate and educate as to our budget priorities.
Jameson Joyce: I don't mean to belabor the question, but in regards to question 5, I was curious if there are any groups or individuals who oppose/have opposed your efforts, such as the policy plan you sent me. Perhaps criminal justice/police reform groups or groups like the ACLU of Michigan? For example, they (the ACLU) have been vocal in the movement to reform how justice is carried out. If this something you do not wish to publicly disclose, I understand.
Director Heyns: On the one side are prisoner rights advocates like the ACLU who believe we incarcerate too many people needlessly and on the other are those who believe we are too lenient. Those critics tend to come prosecutorial groups. My position has always been there is middle ground which I have dubbed smart justice. Smart justice balances the needs of public safety and respect for victims with the need to return offenders to a productive lifestyle. Prison beds are a costly sanction. We need to make sure we use them wisely.
Jameson Joyce: Following up on question 6, since you were appointed to this position and began influencing policy, have you changed tactics or adapted as you gained experience? As you noted, reform requires multiple partners; did you seek out or gain new allies as time progressed?
Director Heyns: I have probably become more savvy at predicting which reforms will succeed and which are untenable. This allows me to invest my time more productively.
Jameson Joyce: You mentioned over 400 bills have been proposed to raise minimums and/or maximum sentences. Does that mean all these bills have proposed raising sentences and none have proposed lowering them? Or am I reading that incorrectly? If I am, what has been the effect of many of these bills? By that I mean, have you seen a reduction in prison terms or less harsh sentences or have these penalties increased/become more punitive?
Director Heyns: I am unaware of any bills proposing reductions in the mins and maxs of sentences. The median length of stay has increased during my tenure. The average cumulative minimum sentence (non-life) 2006 = 3.5 yrs, 2014 = 4.2 years. I think you can deduce the trend.