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Report Finds Increase in Michigan Prison Population Attributable to Political Policy Changes, Not Crime Increase

Report Finds Increase in Michigan Prison Population Attributable to Political Policy Changes, Not Crime Increase

by David M. Reutter

A report issued by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) concludes that “Michigan’s historical incarceration rate growth was not the product of increasing crime rates, but was most prominently influenced by changes in criminal justice policy and practices.” The comprehensive report reviewed here examines the policies, events behind those policies, and the consequences therefrom that have resulted in Michigan’s prison population increasing 538 percent from 1973 to 2004. The fiscal result is Michigan expends the largest portion of their budget (5.2 percent) to run its prison system, which is an increase from 1.6 percent of the budget in 1973, of any in the nation.

This report is unique in that it was not compiled by a governmental or prisoner interest group. Rather, the CRC’s Board of Directors and trustees is a who’s who of Michigan and national business leaders. The report said it was not intended to identify precise aspects of policies needed to slow the growth of incarceration, but it does lay the groundwork to determine future specific policy changes.

A historical perspective broke the last 34 years (from 1973 to 2007) into five specific periods of population growth and stability. From 1973 to 1978, Michigan’s prison population grew at an annual rate of 13.9 percent, swelling the number of prisoners from 7,874 to 14,944 in that period.

There were found to be several political causes behind that growth. A 1974 U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration program provided discretionary grants to certain local prosecutor’s offices to be used to set up units devoted to the prosecution of habitual offenders, which provided more staff and resources to increase the prison sentences for Michigan’s habitual offenders. Then in 1978, a graduated good-time credit system for certain offenses was eliminated by a ballot initiative.

The prison population between 1979 and 1984 was stable, which was attributed to “parole approval rates [that] reached near-historic highs, averaging 68.5 percent annually.” This also resulted in “record low recidivism rates, averaging 30 percent annually.” From 1985 to 1989, the prison system’s growth caused its budget to grow by 19.5 percent, draining 9.1 percent of the total in Michigan’s General Fund in FY1989.

The main cause for that growth was attributed to high profile crimes that resulted in lower parole approval rates. One such instance was the 1984 murder of an East Lansing police officer and a housewife by a parolee released under the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act (POEPA). That crime was to blame for parole approval rates plunging by 10 percent in 1985 from 1984 rates. In addition, those murders were the driving force behind repealing the POEPA in 1988.

Steady growth of the prison population followed from 1990 to 2002, growing 3.6 percent annually to 50,591 prisoners in 2002. “Two pivotal changes in policy during these years increased the size of Michigan’s prison population,” says the report. “The first was the change in the Parole Board from civil servants to appointees in 1992.”

That restructuring was seen as the cause of the “nine-point increase in the recidivism rate.” That results from “the number of technical rule violators returned to prison has increased, accounting for only 9 percent of new prison commitments in 1976 and for 26 percent of new prison commitments in 2006.

The second policy change was to increase the length of the average stay. This was done by “changes in policy aimed at being tough on crime and decreasing parole approval rates. The average prison stay has increased from approximately 28 months in 1981 to 44 months in 2005, or 57% annually.

While “Michigan’s truth-in-sentencing” policy decreased early release programs that raised the prison population, decreasing parole approval rates also contributed to that rise. That rate went from 66 percent in the years prior to 1992 to 52 percent in the years since. Meanwhile, the recidivism rate increased from 36 percent in 1976 to a rate of 46 percent in 2004. In fact, the report graphically shows that the lower the approval rate, the higher the recidivism rate.

The prison population has remained relatively stable from 2003 – 2007. Its current 50,591 prisoners have a longer average stay than other state prisoners nationally. Michigan first timers serve an average 3.7 years, which is 1.2 years more than the national average. With the fifteenth highest cost annually per prisoner, Michigan spends two percent more of its budget on prisons than does the average state, which only devotes about 3.4 percent on prisons.

Current projections show Michigan’s prison spending growing by 6.8 percent annually between 2008 and 2012. Such spending makes little sense in light of the report’s core conclusion.

“Given that the annual crime rate declined by 42 percent and the violent crime rate remained stable from 1976 to 2006, Michigan’s historical incarceration rate growth was not caused by increased crime rates,” states the report. “As the timeline portion in Michigan was principally the result of specific changes in the policies and practices at all levels of the criminal justice system.”'

Although this report is specific to Michigan, the same policies and political dynamics have spread throughout the United States. It clearly debunks the “tough on crime” crowd within the prison industrial complex when it comes to why we need more prisons. The June 2008 CRC report, entitled, Growth in Michigan’s Corrections System: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, is available on PLN’s website.

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