The Detroit Free Press is again urging the early release of thousands of prisoners in an effort to balance the state’s budget (“Bolder prison changes would save state millions,” Feb. 19). We disagree for two important reasons: 1) It is bad public policy; 2) It has been tried and it has not worked.
The first obligation of government is public safety. Public safety is not one of those nice things government should provide only when revenues are flush.
There is a flaw in the Free Press’ thinking when it declares, “The only way to save real money in Corrections: by reducing the population.”
The real way to endanger the safety and security of Michigan’s families is by reducing the population and releasing dangerous prisoners early. There are reasons why the state puts violent individuals in prison: because they have done terrible, brutal things to innocent people.
To suggest, as the Free Press does, that Michigan lower its prison incarceration rates to match those of surrounding states is misguided and dangerous, since Michigan is not like surrounding states in two important areas. First, according to the Council of State Governments, Michigan is the most violent Great Lakes state and has the fewest police officers in the entire region, in addition to having an extremely low rate of solving violent crime. Second, Michigan sends very few convicted felons to prison, with only a 10% initial prison commitment rate and an overall rate including probation violators that is half the national average.
In fact, many serious offenders, from drug dealers to third-time drunken drivers, never see the inside of prison walls under Michigan’s current sentencing guidelines. Rather, in a vast majority of criminal cases, only those who commit very violent acts such as murder, rape or child molestation, or those with a lengthy criminal history, gain admission. Therefore, releasing thousands of prisoners early most assuredly compromises public safety.
Here are some constructive steps Michigan should take in an effort to reform our prison system:
• Emulate success, and take a closer look at how other states deliver corrections services. If Michigan’s cost per prisoner were the same as Texas, we would save approximately $757 million per year, according to the Pew Center on the States. Similarly, Arizona has roughly the same number of prisoners as Michigan and yet its corrections budget is about half that of Michigan’s.
• Remember that crime victims and their families have rights, too. Their lives have been changed forever, and we owe them certainty in sentencing.
• Protect Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law to give credibility to the sentencing process in the eyes of victims and the public, and to ensure that dangerous criminals do not leave prison before serving their minimum sentence.
• Finally, do not restore good time credits to “incentivize good behavior.” Such incentives are already in place — prisoners know that if they fail to behave, they will serve more than their minimum sentence, possibly years more.
In the final analysis, catch and release may be good for the sports fishing industry, but it is poor public policy when it comes to criminaljustice.
Michigan attorney general
Genesee County prosecutor (and the Democratic candidate for attorney general in last November’s election)