Michigan has started a much-needed review of its criminal sentencing guidelines — one that will hopefully chart a path for more efficient use of the state’s limited resources.
The state has struggled to balance public safety with punishment and rehabilitation efforts that produce good results. Indeed, Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, recently told The Detroit News: “Being ‘tough on crime’ above all other concerns simply hasn’t created a safer society.”
And Michigan’s corrections budget, exceeding $2 billion a year, is too large to sustain without damaging other essential services. Indeed, the LSJ Editorial Board is among many voices suggesting the size of the corrections budget has already harmed the state. Consider, for example, the drastic reduction in state support for higher education, which has resulted in accelerated tuition increases.
A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Michigan’s average time served grew from 2.4 years in 1990 to 4.3 years in 2009 — a figure that put the state first in the nation for average time served for all crimes. Michigan lawmakers approved tougher sentencing guidelines in 1998; the study suggests those added $472 million to the state’s annual corrections costs, which would equate to $6.6 billion over the last 14 years.
On the other side are many criminal justice professionals, including police and prosecutors, who believe that Michigan’s inmates are indeed dangerous criminals who belong behind bars.
Still, evidence suggests that Michigan’s approach is ripe for review. To that end, Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and House Speaker Jase Bolger asked the Council on State Governments Justice Center to assist the state’s Law Review Commission in studying potential changes to statutory sentencing guidelines.
The state has made some progress. The number of inmates is down to some 43,000 from a peak of more than 51,000 in 2007, for example. But escalating costs for corrections’ employee benefits and pensions have offset that drop.
The commission is bipartisan and is working on a comprehensive review with capable outside experts from Pew, the Justice Center and the U.S. Justice Department. A timeline calls for policy options to be announced in early 2014.
Michigan has a chance to refine its corrections efforts with positive results. It can’t afford not to act.
Lansing State Journal