Sentencing Reforms Could Save Tax Dollars

Council of State Governments issues recommendations

All criminal justice systems face competing tensions of protecting public safety while not overburdening taxpayers, and Michigan’s is no exception. Calls to reduce financial costs often face scrutiny on the grounds of potentially compromised security. In a Lansing hearing on July 1, which I was able to attend, the Council of State Governments brought to Michigan several suggestions related to criminal sentencing, claiming that these policy changes could ease the financial burden on taxpayers while simultaneously maintaining or even improving public safety.

The Council advocates for the greater use of “supervision terms” as part of criminal sentences, with close monitoring of parolees to help prevent re-offense. Time spent outside of a prison or jail costs the state substantially less than time spent inside, and also eases the transition of criminals back into the society of their home communities. In addition, standardizing and codifying parole practices as much as possible makes it easier to predict prison populations. Under the current system, with many parole decisions left to boards which are given wide discretion, prison populations fluctuate dramatically (page 24) even as criminal convictions hold steady.

To further promote consistency on criminal sentencing, the Council recommends the reduction or elimination of “straddle cells” (page 13) in Michigan’s sentencing system. These cells correspond to offenders in particular circumstances who could legally receive jail or prison time, but whom the judge could let off with only a fine or probation, according to his or her discretion alone. The Council maintains that due to the incredible disruptive effect which even short jail terms can have on a person’s life, the law must be made explicit as to which crimes merit incarceration and which do not.

All parties to the current discussion over criminal sentencing reform recognize recidivism (page 48) as a major detriment to both public safety and public finances, but often hold conflicting ideas regarding addressing this problem or even defining it. The Council calls for Michigan to focus its resources on proven criminal re-entry programs for both current prisoners and the recently released, and to pull funding from those without a good track record of reducing recidivism. Increased counseling and programming available for probationers, convicted of relatively minor crimes, could also help in the fight to prevent repeat offenses and potential escalation.

The Michigan Law Revision Commission will consider these recommendations over the coming weeks. The Mackinac Center has previously commented on other potential savings to be found in the corrections budget via reducing employee costs and looking into privatization.