On Saturday, Barbara Levine–the executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS)–gave the keynote address at the “Michigan’s Prison System: How Does It Affect You?” conference at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids. Levine’s speech gave an excellent overview of the state of Michigan’s prison system and set the stage for the sessions and workshops that took place later in the day.
Levine began by telling the audience that Michigan currently has 50,000 people incarcerated. This number has increased dramatically over the past two decades, with 15,000 people being incarcerated in 1984. Overall, the United States has an incarceration rate higher than most other country’s. Michigan’s system fits into that as an extremely punitive prison system, with the 11th highest incarceration rate in the United States–higher than the neighboring states and higher than Canada, Mexico, and Central America.
Levine attributed the increase in Michigan’s prison population to the “get tough” crime laws that began to emerge in the mid-1970s. While the crime rate was identical in 1974 to 1995, the numbers of those incarcerated shot up dramatically. Media, politicians, and some social scientists fueled the trend by advocating and responding to calls for “tougher” sentences.
To its credit, Michigan sends a lower percentage of felons to prison than many other states. However, those that do get sent to prison end up staying for a very long time. On average, Michigan’s prisoners stay for 16 months longer than prisoners in other Great Lakes do. The average length of stay for prisoners in Michigan is 42 months according to a recent study by the Citizens Research Council. Levine said that there is no empirical evidence that keeping people in prison longer reduces their likelihood of returning and a study by her organization found that there is “no magic length of time” that will reduce recidivism.
There are a number of factors responsible for Michigan’s lengthy average prison sentence. Aside from the “get tough” policies already noted, Levine said that prison sentences are driven in large part by fear–citizens are afraid of crime, politicians are afraid to look “soft” on crime, and the parole board is afraid to let someone out who later might commit a heinous crime. At the same time, the United States has an attitude in which “individual responsibility” is a predominant attitude that makes it hard for people to sympathize with prisoners, as many people ignore the societal factors that play a role in crime. Levine also said that prisons are a big money industry where contractors, communities, guards, etc all make money off prisons. At the same time, prosecutors are given almost total discretion to pursue charges, but they often feel pressured to pursue “tough” sentences to stay in office. Judges have similar discretion and often err on the high end of what are frequently vague sentencing guidelines (for example: 5 to 25 years, 10 years to life). The parole board also has guidelines but minimal oversight. Consequently, many who are eligible for parole are not let lout. In 2005, 45% of those who scored a high probability of release were not let out.
Levine said that this incarceration comes at a high financial price for the state of Michigan. Currently, the Michigan Department of Correction’s annual budget is $2.1 billion. That number is 20% of the state’s general fund. Spending on corrections comes at the expense of other programs.
Beyond the financial cost, there is a great societal cost to such a punitive incarceration system. One in six African-American males are incarcerated at some point in their life, and if current trends continue, that number will reach one in three. African Americans are imprisoned at five-and-a-half times the rate of whites. There are also now 1.5 million children in the United States who have a parent in prison. The stigma of incarceration also remains after people are released, with many former prisoners having a very difficult time finding jobs and housing once they are released.
However, despite all of the problems with Michigan’s prison system, Levine sees some prospects for hope. She said that Michigan’s residents are beginning to see the costs and futility of “get tough” policies and that legislators are starting to respond with policy changes. She said that drug sentences are slowly being reformed and that there is an ongoing conversation in Lansing about how to cut the MDOC budget. She also said that the Detroit Chamber of Commerce has made it a goal to reduce the MDOC budget by $500 million and is basing its cuts on recommendations made by her organization.
Overall, Levine’s talk gave a good overview of some of the problems in the prison system. For those that want to learn more about Michigan’s prisons, we encourage you to visit the following websites: