While I understand Asa Smith’s concern for Michigan’s safety and reputation, his analysis of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposal to release 7,500 prison inmates relies on several untrue assumptions (Good behavior, bad regulation, 02/21/2010). This proposal is obviously an issue of concern to Michigan citizens and it needs to be handled delicately. But by framing the conversation as a clear trade-off between public safety and budget cuts, Smith distorts the issue. Many politicians have capitalized on public fear by presenting the same narrative. It is possible to make budget cuts to our prisons without putting ourselves in more danger. Granholm just has to do it correctly.
Earlier this month, Granholm proposed making over $130 million in cuts to the state’s prison system. The state would release roughly 7,500 prisoners early based on “good behavior credits.” People imprisoned for all types of crimes could potentially qualify for these credits.
My biggest problem with Smith’s analysis is his portrayal of the makeup of Michigan’s prisoners. His use of child-rapists and murderers as examples suggests that most of our prisoners are incarcerated for crimes of equal severity. The public tends to envision a prison system crawling with those convicted of only the most serious types of crime. But not only are there violent crimes that aren’t as severe as murder, there are also plenty of felonies that aren’t violent. While it’s surprisingly difficult to find statistics on the makeup of Michigan’s prisoners, I have good reason to believe that the general public’s narrative is wrong.
Let’s start with prisoners convicted of rape and other sexual offenses. The term “sex-offender” is a vague term that is too often used interchangeably with “child-rapist.” The Michigan State Police department provides a list of offenses for which an individual can wind up on the sex-offender list. Many kinds of offenses, like what the Michigan Penal Code describes as “soliciting, accosting, or inviting to commit prostitution or immoral act” could mean a number of things that don’t involve adult-to-child rape. This fall, for instance, the Daily reported on the case of a teenager who could have been put on the list for a crime he committed when he was 15 years old.
Furthermore, many criminology studies show that individuals frequently overestimate the amount of murder occurring in the U.S. and this is often a result of the way crime is portrayed in prime-time television. In a 1997 study, Vandiver and Giacopassi asked criminal justice students to estimate the number of homicides that occurred in the U.S. that year. The average estimate was 250,000, even though the real number that year was 18,208.
There are several other problems with Smith’s analysis. It assumes that long prison sentences are necessary to decrease crime recidivism, even though there is a body of research showing that the opposite is true. It also doesn’t acknowledge that Michigan has a recent history of having unusually high incarceration rates in relation to other states. Finally, inflamed crime rhetoric like referring to murderers as inherently bad people, or stating that criminals must be removed from our society, suggests that all criminals are utterly hopeless. If this were true, we would just give them all lifetime sentences or the death penalty.
I agree with Smith that good behavior credits should not be granted blindly to all types of criminals — one who is imprisoned for murder should not be subject to the same discretion as someone who is imprisoned for drug use. But this is not enough of a reason to go against the policy altogether. Fear rhetoric is a powerful tool and I encourage the public to look past it in the arguments that are inevitably going to be made by Republican legislators. As we continue to discuss Granholm’s policy, let’s be sure not to lose our heads.
Jeremy Levy is an LSA sophomore.