Mackinac Center Analysts Pioneered Prison Sentencing/Cost Reform 'Grand Bargain' Proposals

Snyder transition team now considering similar information

As Michigan’s new governor and Legislature prepare to wrestle budgets increasingly pressured by generous government employee benefits, attention is turning once again to a “grand bargain” on prisons: Lock up fewer people for less time, and also adopt reforms that bring down prison employee costs.

The Mackinac Center first described the promise in this kind of deal back in the summer of 2007. An article by Ken Braun, managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, supplied Citizens Research Council data showing that Michigan pays around $30,000 a year per prisoner, with incarceration rates nearly 22 percent higher than the national average, according to Senate Fiscal Agency information.

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In 2009, Braun recommended a “privatization for sentence reform” bargain in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. In frank but respectful exchanges with members, he challenged some for their contradictory remarks on issues related to the subject. 

In 2008, the Center joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to co-host a forum in Lansing, “Beyond the Bars: Corrections Alternatives.” A Mackinac Center video produced by Communications Specialist Kathy Hoekstra has the highlights. 

Achieving significant cost savings in prison operations faces institutional obstacles that require institutional solutions. The Legislature and Governor aren’t really capable of micromanaging a prison system that employs 15,878 people and will spend $2 billion this year. To generate real savings it will be necessary to create incentives for individual prison managers and employees to cut costs, and the most effective way to accomplish this is to privatize some prisons.

That’s exactly what Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections when he testified on the issue in 2005. He explained that, based on research into the experience of other states, placing just 5 percent of our prisoners in privately run prisons would save more than $150 million throughout the system because the state-run institutions would be forced  to “sharpen their pencils,” seeking out ways to do more for less.