Michigan’s state legislature is considering a plan that would shorten prison sentences and bring them more in line with other states. The plan, which is based on a year long analysis of the state’s prison system, could provide a potential savings of $262 million by 2015.

In a study published by the Council of State Governments, an examination of the state’s current process of incarcerating prisoners revealed that the average maximum sentence in the state is three times as long as the minimum, which is in stark contrast to similar laws across the nation.

With an approximate spending of $32,000 per year on each individual prisoner, sentencing people for seemingly extended periods of time is costly and ineffective, according to the report.

If Michigan’s legislature enacted the report’s suggestions, 4,300 additional prisoners would be released by 2015, which would be a huge financial benefit for the state. Prisoners would be reviewed by the parole board and would not be jailed any longer than 120 percent of their minimum sentence.

However, the parole board would be able to hold prisoners for more than 120 percent of the minimum sentence if they are deemed to be at high-risk for re-offending.

According to the report, the plan’s intention is not to save money by decreasing safety but rather to move toward rehabilitating newly released prisoners into mainstream society rather than keeping them jailed for unnecessary long periods of time.

The plan, which is supported by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, would put Michigan on par with the other states around the country including California, New Jersey and South Carolina, states that are currently looking at re-evaluating their sentencing policies.

The analysis does not advocate for releasing prisoners early but rather that their minimum and maximum sentences be more representative to the crimes they committed, according to the report.

By creating a tighter timeframe for which criminals can be jailed, the state will only be keeping prisoners as long as necessary for the sentence to be fully effective, the report says.

John Cordell, a public information officer in the Department of Corrections, said the money saved could be reinvested into other corrections programs that are designed to keep these prisoners from re-offending.

Cordell said the money could also be used to fund other struggling state departments.

“There is some reinvestment that will occur into correctional and criminal justice departments,” he said. “Once that happens, we can free up those monies for things like parks, education and expenses for college.”

Supporters of using the study’s findings to transform prison sentencing laws hope to have the legislature pass the proposal by April and to have it melded into budgetary decisions for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

State Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor) said that she supports making the state’s prison sentencing more like other states but thinks the report only addresses some of the issues within the state prison system.

“I think it’s a good start,” she said. “I think we have to start from here and then there’s obviously a lot more we can do. The issue of people with mental illness is not addressed, and these people are ending up being criminalized.”

Brater said that the legislature is currently taking a look at the problem of people with mental illnesses being put in prisons as opposed to getting the care they need.

“We are currently doing a study to analyze the incidence of mental illness among the Michigan prison population,” Brater said. “Hopefully this issue will lead us to redirect that money to mental health care. Treating someone with a mental illness as an outpatient would mean spending $8,000 to $11,000 each year as opposed to $32,000 in the prisons.”

With a reduction in the number of prisoners, some argue that there is potential for a reduction of the employees needed to maintain the prison system.

Public Policy Prof. Paul Courant said he thinks the legislature will not only be debating the possibility of having more previously convicted felons free than in jail, but also that legislators of certain constituencies will have to consider the potential loss of employment by people who work in the prisons.

“The state budget is under pressure, and there is a lot of interest in cutting costs, but people in the legislature don’t want to appear soft on crime,” he said.

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