Public Defense Update- Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) June, 2014

CAPPS Responds to the Council of State Governments Justice Center Report

Background:  In May, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSGJC) presented its final report on the challenges Michigan faces in its sentencing and criminal justice system and policy areas for further development to address those challenges.

CAPPS subsequently provided CSG and the Commission members with an analysis of the report, along with a list of proposed principles for sentencing and corrections reforms.

Both the CSGJC report and CAPPS’s response can be found on the CAPPS website at under “In the News.” As this issue goes to press, CAPPS will join SADO and other stakeholders at a Policy Forum on July 1 to discuss the report and policy options. The Policy Forum will include panels on three topics: prison sentences; non-prison sentences; and programs and resources to reduce recidivism.

The following op ed was also submitted to the Lansing State Journal by Barbara Levine, CAPPS associate director of research and public policy. The LSJ printed several op eds on the CSGJC initiative, which can also be found on the CAPPS website under “In the News.”

Picture this:  Jim pleads guilty to robbery in County A and is sentenced to nine to 20 years in prison.  The parole board releases him when he has served nine.  Bob, who has a similar prior record, pleads guilty to a similar robbery in County B.  His sentence is 15-35 years.  Although Bob and Jim had similar histories since entering prison, the board denies Bob parole for four years after he becomes eligible.  Bob is finally released after serving 19 years – 10 years longer than Jim for the same crime.

This is a common scenario in Michigan.  Despite our sentencing and parole guidelines, the sentence a person receives and how much of that sentence he or she actually serves depends greatly on the way prosecutors, judges and parole board members exercise their very broad discretion. 

The resulting disparities are clearly unfair and enormously expensive for taxpayers. They fail to provide victims and offenders with certainty about what the sentence actually means.  Above all, widely different outcomes do nothing to enhance public safety. 

We now have a unique opportunity to adopt reforms that are safe, sensible and fair -- while reducing our $2 billion corrections budget.  The Council of State Governments (CSG) report is rich with insights that could lead to increased consistency, decreased re-offending and savings.  Among them:  analysis of re-arrest data corroborates other evidence that additional time in prison does not improve recidivism rates. 

While the results of our broken system are obvious and the causes are easy to identify, the solutions will be subject to much debate.  The debate will be most productive if these objectives are kept in mind:

Treat people with similar prior records who are convicted of similar crimes in similar fashion, regardless of the sentencing county or other irrelevant factors.

Make criminal penalties proportional to the seriousness of the offense and the prior record of the offender.

Reconsider the length of prison sentences in Michigan:

• A report by the Pew Center on the States concluded that, as of 2009, Michigan prisoners in general serve nearly 17 months more than a 35-state average and those convicted of assaultive offenses serve 30 months longer.
• CSG found that the average length of minimum sentences increased by 2.7 months in just the five-year period from 2008-2012.
• The Pew Center reported that from 1990-2009, Michigan’s average prison stay increased 79 percent for all offenses and 97 percent for assaultive offenses.
• Research shows that the most serious offenses, including murder and criminal sexual conduct, are the least likely to be repeated.

Treat prison as a scarce resource:

• Only incarcerate people who present an ongoing risk to public safety or whose crimes require the harshest punishment.
• Make the length of confinement no greater than necessary to achieve its purpose.
• Do not send “technical” probation or parole violators to prison unless any level of community supervision would pose a danger to the public.

Do not enhance punishment by counting the same prior conduct multiple times.

Whatever the penalty, use the opportunity to address the person’s risks and needs to the full extent possible.

Apply all reforms to current prisoners, probationers and parolees to the full extent allowable by law.  Otherwise, neither the size of the prison population nor the cost of corrections will be reduced in the immediate future.  Nor would current prisoners receive relief from the disparities and inconsistencies that CSG has identified.

Consider all credible proposals.  These include:

• Re-establish a sentencing commission with diverse membership to recommend, monitor and evaluate changes in laws and policies that affect sentencing and parole,
• Require parole when a person first becomes eligible, unless there is objective evidence of high current risk or a recent history of serious institutional misconducts [“presumptive parole”],
• Increase releases of parolable lifers,
• Restore sentencing credits (“good time”) for good behavior and/or program participation,
• Restore community transition programs for people nearing their earliest release dates.

There is no lack of knowledge about the flaws in Michigan’s criminal justice system or what it would take to fix them.  The question now is whether policymakers will act on indisputable evidence or stay mired in the “get tough” politics that got us here.

Corrections Budget Reflects
Major Policy Choices

CAPPS’s analysis of the corrections budget proposals, along with a summary of how those proposals fared in the final corrections budget, can also be found on the CAPPS website.

CAPPS September 17 Legislative Day

The debate on how to reform Michigan’s sentencing and corrections policies will be heating up this fall. CAPPS is hosting community meetings and is speaking to groups around the state to build support for CAPPS’s September 17 Legislative Day.  Please give the CAPPS office a call at (517) 482-7753 to arrange a speaker for your bar association or to find out how you can get involved in the effort to end mass incarceration.

by Laura Sager, Executive Director
Citizens Alliance on Prisons
and Public Spending

The Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) is a non-profit public policy organization. We are concerned about Michigan’s excessive use of punitive strategies rather than preventive ones to deal with crime and its impact on our quality of life. CAPPS advocates re-examining those policies and shifting our resources to services that prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders and address the needs of all our citizens in a cost-effective manner. For more information about CAPPS’s research, recommendations, or to get involved, please go to the CAPPS website at or email Laura Sager, executive director, at

If you are interested in helping with CAPPS’s public education and outreach efforts, please email Laura Sager at