Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the popular law and order slogans were “get tough on crime,” and “lock ‘em up and throw the key away.”
Well, we tried that.
What it got us was an increase in the state prison population from 18,000 to more than 50,000.
Michigan’s prison budget more than tripled.
Now, it’s about $2 billion a year, far more than we spend on higher education and roads.
We may not feel much safer, but we sure are broke.
The prison population has since declined to about 43,000, in part due to the fact that Michigan’s population is on average older, and older people don’t tend to commit as many crimes.
But most experts, and Gov. Rick Snyder, believe that is still far too many.
For the last few years, the buzz in criminal justice has been dominated by two different slogans: “Get smart about crime,” and “We should lock up those we are afraid of, not those we are mad at.”
Yesterday, the governor came down firmly in that reform camp.
In a special message on criminal justice, Snyder called for a bunch of common sense, criminal justice reforms that would save the state money and give convicts a better chance to turn their lives around at minimal risk to the population. He wants the Legislature to pass bills that would parole inmates once they reach the earliest possible date they’d be eligible.
That is, if their prison records are clean, and Department of Corrections authorities think their chances of making it on the outside are good. The governor also wants to do more to keep juvenile offenders from being incarcerated; so-called “kiddie prisons” have often mainly served as a training school for career criminals.
Snyder also wants to set a 30-day cap on locking up people for violating probation, something that is now costing us a quarter of a billion dollars a year. These are all highly sensible reforms that have the potential to save a great deal of money.
The question is, however, will they happen?
They haven’t in the past, largely because politicians of both parties have been paranoid about being accused of being “soft on crime.” There were clear indications yesterday that this attitude still lingers. The governor even felt he had to say of himself, “Is he just being weak on crime? The answer is no.”
In fact, a couple of his reforms would actually make people safer. One would help victims of sex crimes and domestic assault protect their anonymity, and another would relieve those seeking personal protection orders of the financial burden of doing so.
Initial legislative reaction to the governor’s reforms was mostly positive.
Reaction from those working in law enforcement was less so, as it always is; cops almost never relish seeing those they regard as the “bad guys” getting out.
The big question, however, is what Attorney General Bill Schuette will do. He’s opposed sentencing reform in the past, and he’s been accused of grandstanding to win favor with hard line conservatives.
One thing is clear: Michigan can no longer afford to keep everybody locked up who we are supposedly “mad at.” Not, that is, if we ever want to educate our citizens and fix the roads.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.