If there’s one thing Michigan lawmakers seem to love more than bickering over the state budget, it’s incarceration. With only a few notable exceptions, most legislators want to lock up as many people as possible in as few prisons as possible, ignore them and the conditions they live in while they are there, expect them to make a seamless return to society through the all-powerful Michigan Prison Re-entry Initiative and pretend like the whole process doesn’t come at a cost.

They couldn’t be more delusional.

To the tune of almost $2 billion a year, Michigan is financing one of the most dysfunctional corrections systems in the country, and certainly the most backward in the Midwest. The sadder thing is that fixing the problem is a lot easier than people might think. Positive reforms just can’t get support. Although these might not be the most popular or politically palatable solutions, if the state eased up its sentencing guidelines for a few low-risk offenses and opened up the option of parole for inmates who have earned a second chance, much of the strain and cost of the system would go away.

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, Michigan incarcerates people at the eighth-highest rate in the country, locking up 502 people out of every 100,000. Each of these inmates costs roughly $35,000 a year to keep behind bars – a figure that is more than three times the U.S. poverty line for a single, non-elderly person. Meanwhile, Michigan’s unemployment rate is still hovering around 7 percent, and lawmakers are slashing safety-net services like Medicaid because they can’t bite the bullet and raise taxes.

Somehow, the Michigan Department of Corrections still managed to get a budget increase of $125 million for the next fiscal year.

While it might seem wildly unfair that the state keeps pumping money into Michigan’s system of mass incarceration even as it ignores unemployed workers, it might just be worth it after all if it is making our state a safer place. But it’s not.

According to 2005 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, when compared to neighboring states like Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, Michigan has the highest violent crime, murder, forcible rape and aggravated assault rates per 100,000 people – despite also having the highest incarceration rate. Last October, two Michigan cities, Detroit and Flint, were also bestowed the honor of being the second and third most dangerous cities in the country, as judged by the private research company Morgan Quitno Press.

In May 2007, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed one solution that makes sense: Reform sentencing guidelines so less people end up in prison and those in prison serve shorter sentences. The plan would reform 142 felonies and includes lowering maximum sentences for cocaine and marijuana possession and higher thresholds for forgery, larceny and counterfeiting crimes. The changes would save an estimated $76 million per year.

Now that he has inexplicably stopped writing about the health care problems in Michigan’s prisons, Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Gerritt wrote another proposal this weekend that just makes sense. Gerritt proposed that Michigan allow well-behaved, reformed inmates with life sentences the opportunity to parole after serving roughly 15 to 18 years. This was an option till 1992 – when then-governor John Engler helped institute a “life-means-life” philosophy – and recidivism rates for these parolees were much lower than other offenders.

But both of these common-sense proposals will have to fend off the ubiquitous public safety arguments. People don’t want ex-convicts in their neighborhoods or at their workplaces. And victims understandably want severe punishment for the perpetrators, regardless of whether the crime is theft or murder.

State Republicans tap into and take advantage of these sentiments every time this debate comes up. Like all good things Republican, the answer lies in letting the market make it all better. By privatizing our state prisons or outsourcing our prisoners to other states, Michigan can still mass incarcerate – it just needs to do it more efficiently. It’s pretty far-fetched to say that outsourcing inmates away from their family and community is an effective way to reform them, but if by some stretch of the imagination it is, why not satisfy everyone and implement a viable system of parole, too?

The reality is that we don’t have a punishments system; we have a corrections system – and that means not locking up people when they aren’t dangerous and not keeping inmates in prison indefinitely. Michigan can find better ways to spend its money.

Gary Graca is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at gmgraca@umich.edu.

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