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ACLU Report Applauds Michigan’s Efforts to Reduce Prison Population

by David M. Reutter

A November 2009 report by Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the National Prison Project of the ACLU, explores the history and effects of over-incarceration in Michigan and how the state has managed to reduce its prison population by roughly 8% during an era of unprecedented national prison growth.

The report concludes that steps taken by Michigan officials to reverse the “tidal wave of mass incarceration” without provoking a public backlash provide “a possible model for other states seeking a smarter and more affordable criminal justice policy.”

Between 1970 and 2005, the number of people imprisoned in the United States increased 700%. Our nation “locks up almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world. In fact, if all of our prisoners were confined in one city, that city would be the fourth largest in the country,” according to the ACLU report.

Although incarcerating more people lowers crime rates, it is sentencing and release policies – not crime rates – that determine the prison population. While crime rates continued to fall between 1991 and 1998, the rate of incar-ceration continued to increase. “During that time, the states that experienced below-average increases in their rate of incarceration actually experienced above-average decreases in crime.”

The majority of high incarceration rates in the U.S. stem from the War on Drugs, which disproportionately affects ra-cial minorities. The consequences of “the strong tendency of states to site prisons in rural, mainly white areas, and the census policy of counting prisoners where they are imprisoned rather than in the communities where they lived, and gen-erally will return when released from prison, shifts congressional power and federal grant money to rural areas rather than impoverished urban areas” the report states.

“Michigan has long provided a textbook example of a dysfunctional criminal justice policy,” the ACLU observes, point-ing to the state’s high incarceration rate, a law (repealed in 1998) that required mandatory life sentences for possession of 650 grams of cocaine or heroin, and a 0.2% parole grant rate for eligible lifers.

Yet Michigan has implemented changes that reduced its prison population by roughly 8% between March 2007 and November 2009. It achieved this reduction by revising parole policies “based on research that has identified practices and techniques that increase the accuracy of predicting which offenders can be safely released.” Unfortunately, lifers did not benefit from this research or this policy.

The Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI) links reentry efforts within prisons to post-release support programs in local communities. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.36]. About 60 days before a prisoner’s expected release date, a specific reentry plan is prepared; after release, local community services work with ex-prisoners. Graduated sanctions are im-posed when a parolee violates parole rules, addressing problem behavior without assessing technical violations that result in re-incarceration.

An Executive Clemency Advisory Council was created “to identify and review potential candidates for release based on reasons such as declining health.” This program has thus far had little effect, but the governor has ordered improve-ments.

The changes in Michigan that resulted in a reduced prison population “are not a blueprint for states that impose fixed sentences without the possibility of parole,” but Michigan’s “experience is important because it demonstrates that common sense can in fact beat demagoguery and that smart-on-crime policies can actually triumph.” Alas, prisoners serving long sentences were the least impacted by these policy changes.

Source: “Michigan Breaks the Political Logjam: A New Model for Reducing Prison Populations,” ACLU National Prison Project (Nov. 2009)

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