Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS)

Bipartisan Movement for Michigan Criminal Justice Reform Symposium

As we go to press, CAPPS convened a Symposium on the Bipartisan Movement for Michigan Criminal Justice Reform on September 22. Over 120 participants registered to hear speakers address criminal justice reform from a variety of perspectives.

In addition to CAPPS, event hosts include the Alliance for Safety and Justice, Hope Network, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan AFL-CIO, and Michigan AFSCME Council 25. A number of other organizations cosponsored the event. Kyle Melinn, editor of MIRS, is the moderator and Rep. Dave Pagel (R-Berrien Springs), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of Corrections, will welcome guests with some comments about the conservative perspective.

The Symposium presentation by Barbara Levine, CAPPS’s associate director is published below. We think you will find her remarks helpful as you discuss various criminal justice reform proposals this fall with your colleagues and friends. Please also note the information about the CAPPS Legislative Day on October 27 that follows her remarks. We hope that many of you will attend and participate.

Why reducing the prisoner population will not jeopardize public safety.

We often hear that 70 percent of prisoners are serving for assaultive or sex offenses and the other 30 percent have long criminal records.  Thirty-five percent were on either probation or parole when they were sent to prison. These facts are not inaccurate but without context they are misleading.

“Assaultive” covers a very broad range of conduct, from a bar fight with minimal injuries to murder.  Sex offense means anything from a 17-year-old boy having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend to a serial rapist.

Long criminal record often means long history of shoplifting or drug use.

What I’d like to do is get behind the broad labels and the emotional rhetoric that clouds this issue and offer four reasons why we can reduce our prisoner population safely.

We send people to prison who do not pose a serious threat to the public because we don’t know what else to do with them.

About 24 percent of the prisoner population – more than 10,000 people – have a minimum sentence of two years or less, suggesting they were not viewed as terribly dangerous by the sentencing courts.  Many of them initially received probation for their offenses and were only sent to prison when they violated the terms of their supervision. Providing substantial programming to people with only 12 or 14 months to serve is a challenge that the MDOC is often unable to meet.

All this suggests that, as the Council of State Governments recommended, we need to put more resources into addressing the needs of the highest risk probationers and provide them appropriate programs in the community so that they don’t end up in prison.

Prisons are very expensive because they are designed to keep people who might otherwise pose a threat to the community in secure custody.  We spend roughly $35,000 per year to incarcerate people who have stolen less than $500 worth of goods.  Why do we do that?  Someone would have to steal $500 70 times over for the loss to society to equal the cost of one year in prison.  When corporations are convicted of much more serious financial crimes, we sanction them with financial penalties.

We need to
reconsider our penalty scheme for property offenses and make the punishment more proportional to the harm.

We also spend $35,000 a year to imprison people who possessed small quantities of drugs.  To be clear, unlike many states, Michigan has not filled its prisons by imposing harsh sentences on low level drug offenders from the start. Many of these people failed on supervision in the community.  But we still have to ask whether incarcerating people in order to help them is a fair or cost-effective approach.

For example, there is the woman I’ll call Bonnie.  After failing on probation for low level drug possession offenses, Bonnie received a prison term of 2 to 6 years.  She was assessed as having a substantial drug dependency but did not get residential substance abuse treatment in prison.  She was released on her first eligibility date but placed in a 90-day residential drug treatment program as a condition of parole.  On day 79, she was terminated from the program for failing to comply with the rules.

Bonnie was returned to prison as a parole violator and continued for another 12 months.  At her next review, she was given another 12- month continuance because the board felt she “needed help removing the obstacles to her sobriety.”  By the time she is again considered for release in Sept. 2016, Bonnie will have spent more than four years in prison essentially because she is a drug addict.

There are other entire groups of prisoners we need to reconsider. We are using our prisons and jails as the mental health treatment system of last resort.  About 20 percent of prisoners have been diagnosed with serious mental illness.

We are one of only nine states that treat 17-year-olds as adults for purposes of criminal responsibility.  From 2008 to 2012, we sent 2,700 kids to prison who were 17 or younger at the time of their offense–half with minimum sentences of two years or less.  There is no question that many of these teenagers would have had a better chance of turning their lives around if they had received age-appropriate programming in the juvenile justice system instead of being placed in an adult prison.

So we need to think hard about: the purposes of prison, how we can develop more effective and accessible community-based programs and what goals are realistic when it comes to efforts to rehabilitate people in the context of the criminal justice system.

We send many people to prison for extremely long times.

From 1989 to 2013, the average minimum sentence for our prisoner population grew from 6.5 to 9.0 years. If you take that additional 2.5 years, multiply it by 43,700 prisoners and multiply that by $35,000/year, we will spend $3.8 billion more on the current population than we would have spent on the same people 25 years ago.

The Pew Center on the States studied data from 35 states on prisoners released in 2009. MI prisoners had a far longer average length of stay than all these other states. This is despite another key point in Pew’s report:  Researchers can find no relationship between increased length of stay and less recidivism.  In general, keeping people in prison longer does not make us safer. Even the fact that someone committed a serious crime in the past does not mean they are a current risk.

Take, for instance, James Aubrey.  In 1985, Aubrey was 35 and had no prior felony record.  Aubrey felt threatened by a man with whom he had had a prior dispute and, believing the other man had a gun, Aubrey shot to protect himself.  He was convicted of second-degree murder.

The sentencing guidelines recommended a minimum sentence no greater than seven years, but the sentencing judge thought that any killing deserved at least ten.  He said he was imposing a parolable life term so that when Aubrey became eligible for release in 10 years, the board could base its decision on his conduct.  Aubrey is now 65 and has served 29 years.  He has had only three misconducts in that entire time.  But the board has shown no interest in releasing him.

The fact is, homicide and sex offenders have the lowest re-offense rates of any crime type.  In 2009, CAPPS published a study of nearly 77,000 people paroled for the first time from Michigan prisons.  Only 3.1% of the sex offenders, returned within three years for a new sex offense.  Only 0.5% of the homicide offenders returned for a new homicide.  These findings are consistent with research from other jurisdictions.

Certainly, there are individuals who may be an exception.  Certainly we are justified in imposing harsh punishment for the most serious crimes regardless of whether the person is likely to reoffend.  But we need to recognize that overall there is no public safety justification for ever-longer sentences that have the primary effect of increasing the size and cost of our prison system.

We keep many people locked up beyond their first parole eligibility date.

The Council of State Governments found that Michigan prisoners serve 125% of their judicially imposed minimum sentences.  Nearly a third of the people paroled in 2012 were more than six months past their earliest release date (ERD).  They served an average of 2.6 extra years.

In a recent CAPPS report, we looked at the results of a natural experiment that occurred when then-Gov. Granholm expanded the parole board and tasked it with reviewing people who were eligible for parole but had been repeatedly “continued” or denied release. Although more than 1,100 additional homicide and sex offenders were released in 2009, returns to prison for new offenses actually declined.  Many of these people had been continued four or more times without any apparent gain to public safety from the additional years served.

Recent MDOC figures show 1,900 people were denied parole despite scoring high probability of release on the Department’s own parole guidelines.  Why do we keep low risk people beyond their ERD?  Often it appears the board is reacting to the nature of the offense.  But other cases can’t be explained even on that basis.

We recently heard from a 60-year-old woman I’ll call Joan.  She had no criminal record until 2013, when she was convicted of larceny in a building and placed on probation.  She then committed a second larceny and was given a prison term of 13 months to four years.  She has no history of substance abuse, her parole guidelines score is very positive and her only misconduct was arriving 30 minutes early to a med line.

Nonetheless, when Joan was considered for parole at her first eligibility date, the board continued her for 12 more months.  Its reason was:  “Based on all the information viewed, the prisoner does not have the tools she needs to help reduce her risk to the public.”  The notice did not say what tools Joan needs and made no recommendation for any programming.  While we are attempting to learn more about Joan’s case, it is difficult to imagine what good another year at the terribly overcrowded women’s prison is going to do.

House Bill 4138 would help address this issue by creating a presumption of release at first eligibility for prisoners who score high probability of release on the parole guidelines, with some carefully defined exceptions.  The description of the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Heise and passed out of the House Criminal Justice Committee, can be found here:

We lack workable mechanisms for handling people whose age or health make them no risk to public safety and whose care is extremely expensive.

I’ll give you two examples.  Brandon was in his early 20’s and serving 4.5 years for drugs and receiving stolen goods when bone cancer that had previously been in remission was found again.  The MDOC began taking him regularly to the Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit for treatment.  His pain was excruciating.  The medical and security costs were enormous.  But Brandon could not be released to his family without having his sentence commuted by the governor.  That process took seven months.  Brandon was finally released 10 days before he died at Karmanos, surrounded by family.

Larry is a 73-year-old prisoner suffering from severe dementia.  He is housed at the Woodland Correctional Facility, where his special needs make him very expensive to maintain.  Larry is serving a parolable life term for second-degree murder.  Because he has already been incarcerated for 17 years, he is eligible for parole.  In light of his condition, the parole board began considering him for release, but the sentencing judge objected and stopped the process.  He said it would demean the seriousness of the offense if Larry did not continue to be punished.

We have an aging prisoner population with 8,700 people currently over 50 and 2,600 already over 60.  We have more and more people shuffling down prison corridors with walkers and experiencing the costly diseases of aging. We know the MDOC can only do so much on its own.  We know some legislators are working hard on solutions that would allow the release of incapacitated prisoners through parole or transfers to nursing homes so medical expenses can be covered by federal health care benefits.  We should also reconsider the sentencing and release policies that keep people incarcerated for decades until they die of old age.

In sum, we need to take a good hard look at who we incarcerate and for how long.  There are lots of ways to punish and lots of ways to rehabilitate.  Prison should be a last resort when the risk to public safety or the seriousness of the offense permits no other choice.  If we had smaller, more manageable prisons we could do more with the people who have to be there.  And we could do more with the millions of dollars we would save by reinvesting them in strategies that are actually much more effective at preventing crime.

To read MLIVE.COM coverage of the Symposium: Michigan looks to address its $2B prison problem with help from full political spectrum click here or copy the following link into your browser: 5/09/michigan_looks_to_address_its.html


We hope you will join us in Lansing and bringing your unique perspective to a meeting with your elected officials. The legislative day is 8:30-3:30 PM, Tuesday, October 27, at the Central United Methodist Church, 215 N. Capital Avenue in Lansing. The agenda will include presentations on reform legislation, training for participants, meetings with legislators and staff, and time to share your experiences. If you would like to attend, please contact CAPPS by calling (517) 482-7753 or emailing Dena Anderson at

CAPPS’s annual meeting is November 12, at 5:30 PM. The program will include a buffet dinner and speakers. Please consider joining CAPPS and attending the membership meeting. (Note our website is under construction, but you can reach it through the portal at

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