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February 10, 2014

"Fewer prisons — and yet, less crime"

Prison mapThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece by Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson. The piece highlights the work of one GOP state legislator and details that Michigan's recent reductions in its prison populations has not been followed by a significant crime increase. Here are excerpts:

Americans are weary of paying for prisons. After stuffing more and more people behind bars for more than two decades, the vast majority of states, including Michigan, have taken steps in recent years to reduce both the number of people they imprison and the length of time offenders remain incarcerated.

As prison populations fall, moreover, crime rates are following suit. Nobody has proved a causal relationship between the two trends, but the fact that some of the biggest reductions in crime have occurred in states that slashed their inmate populations most dramatically has debunked the presumption that public safety depends on lengthy sentences and stingy parole policies.

States that spent the 1980s and ’90s building more and bigger penitentiaries have found a better return in programs designed to divert offenders from prison, and smooth re-entry for those who’ve served their time. Politicians on the front lines say the accompanying shift in voter attitudes has been nearly as startling as the thaw in public sentiment toward same-sex marriage.

State Rep. Joe Haveman, a Holland Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and has made sentencing reform a quietly messianic crusade, tells fellow lawmakers worried about looking soft on crime that voters understand that locking up more offenders is a dead end. “This movement wouldn’t be taking place if the people of this country didn’t realize we’ve made some mistakes,” Haveman says. “I come from the second-most conservative district in the state and the third most conservative county in the country,” Haveman says, “and nobody’s saying I’m wrong about reducing our prison population.

“This isn’t just good policy,” he adds, “this is where the public wants us to go.”...

In a study released last year, the Pew Center for the States reported that Michigan’s rate of incarceration plummeted 12% between 2007 and 2012, to 441 prisoners per 100,000 residents. During the same five-year interval, reported crime dropped 17%, mirroring a national decline.

It’s hard to pin either trend to a single factor, but corrections experts point to Michigan’s relaxation of its notorious “650-lifer law,” which for two decades mandated a life prison sentence for anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. In 1998, then-Gov. John Engler signed bills permitting lesser sentences for future drug offenders and allowing those already serving life terms for drug offenses to seek parole.

Michigan’s change — the amended law allowed 650-lifers to seek parole after 20 years — was a modest one. But it anticipated a nationwide retreat from the draconian drug penalties that many states put in place during the 1970s and ’80s, setting off a slow but steady decline in the percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for possessing or selling drugs.

Michigan corrections officials also credit a decrease in the number of offenders sentenced to prison for all crimes, a slight increase in paroles, and changes in parole supervision that resulted in fewer parolees being returned to prison for minor parole violations....

Haveman, who spearheaded the passage of a 2012 bill that allows more juvenile offenders to expunge their criminal records if they stay out of legal trouble [is] working to revive a state sentencing commission that would be empowered to propose a new, data-driven scheme of criminal penalties modeled on best practices nationwide. But Haveman’s fellow Republicans remain fearful of going too fast, especially in an election year.

Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Haveman introduced legislation that would allow Michigan inmates already serving life sentences for crimes that they committed as teens to seek new sentences consistent with the court’s decision.

But state Attorney General Bill Schuette insists that only juveniles sentenced since the high court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama are entitled to the relief provided by the justices. Last week, Haveman’s Republican colleagues in the House agreed, adopting his bill only after the provision authorizing parole hearings for current juvenile lifers had been stripped out....

Haveman, whose western Michigan district is ground zero for the region’s Dutch Christian Reformed conservatives, is an unlikely champion for corrections reform. A former executive director of the Holland Home Builders Association, he credits the late state Sen. William Van Regenmorter, an Ottawa County conservative who earned national recognition for his advocacy on behalf of crime victims, with sparking his interest in criminal justice and prisons.

But Haveman says he’s been equally influenced by relationships that he and his wife have formed in the course of mentoring paroled inmates in a re-entry program sponsored by their church. That experience, supplemented by Haveman’s visits with corrections workers and inmates at 31 of Michigan’s 32 correctional facilities, convinced Haveman that he had a lot in common with many of those behind bars.

“I certainly was a dumb teenager, and I made mistakes,” Haveman said. “But if I’d grown up with the policing and enforcement policies that are in place today ... well, I’m not sure I’d be in the state Legislature.”

February 10, 2014 at 12:15 AM | Permalink


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The most likely explanation for the findings in this article is that it is a lie, by extreme left wing propaganda organ, the Pew Foundation. Anytime one sees that name, stop reading, the rest is biased left wing trash science. Take a walk in Detroit after sundown, report back.

By validated survey method, the violent crime rate has stopped falling and is rising again, thanks to the Supreme Court coddling of criminals. I am including all conservative Justices as fully responsible for the violent crimes of this nation. All are Ivy indoctrinated, all are big government biased, and all have lawyer rent seeking as the first and last priority of their decision making. Lawyer rent seeking is the best predictor and explanation for the strange and inexplicable appellate decisions.

Violent crime rates:


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 10, 2014 6:07:15 AM

"In a study released last year, the Pew Center for the States reported that Michigan’s rate of incarceration plummeted 12% between 2007 and 2012, to 441 prisoners per 100,000 residents. During the same five-year interval, reported crime dropped 17%, mirroring a national decline."

So much for Mr. Otis's oft-repeated refrain that more incarceration leads to less crime.

Posted by: anon14 | Feb 10, 2014 2:15:43 PM

anon14 --

Gads, I've finally seen the light. Since less incarceration leads to less crime, the solution is obvious: Let's have NO incarceration, so we'll have NO crime!!!

Way to go, anon14! You're a genius!!!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 10, 2014 2:34:10 PM

Bill Otis, you fail to address the point. You have repeated ad nauseam that incarceration works because it necessarily lowers the crime rate. These statistics disprove your thesis, at least in Michigan. So laugh all you want, but your argument has crumbled.

Posted by: anon14 | Feb 10, 2014 5:12:21 PM

anon14 --

I was never much concerned with winning over people whose pre-existing bias in favor of the criminal makes persuasion impossible. Still, unlike your allies, you haven't called me a racist. Yet.

Just for amusement value, however, consider this question: Which is more reliable -- several years' experience in several states, or fifty years' experience in fifty states?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 10, 2014 9:37:54 PM

There is little doubt that there are situations where a reduction in prisoners would not result in a crime increase. Say, for example, a hypothetical situation where crime was generally falling (therefore less intake) and those being released were predominantly aged out.

This isn't hard.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 11, 2014 9:54:11 PM

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