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September 6, 2007

Editorial spotlights the modern politics of sentencing

BildeThis morning's Detroit Free Press has this effective editorial, entitled "The politics of fear vs. sentencing reform."  Here are snippets:

After Lansing police arrested state prison parolee Matthew Macon last week as a suspect in the murders of five women, state Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, promptly pronounced overdue sentencing reforms dead.  Like most Republicans, however, Cropsey had already opposed sentencing reforms that would save the state a much needed $100 million by diverting some minor offenders from prison to community corrections programs. So Cropsey's remarks were as predictable as they were off point. He joins a long line of politicians who have used fear instead of reason to exploit a handful of high-profile cases to justify Michigan's unreasonably high incarceration rates.

The result has been enormous increases in prison populations and costs, with little or no effect on public safety. In Michigan today, one in three state civil service employees works for the Department of Corrections; in 1980, one in 20 did.  Michigan spends nearly $2 billion a year on Corrections -- more than it spends on higher education. It incarcerates at a rate of 40% higher than other Great Lake states, which have lower crime rates....

To be sure, reforms in Michigan's sentencing polices ought to be subject to tough questions, but exploiting a tragedy to silence a very necessary debate will bankrupt the state while doing nothing to further public safety.

September 6, 2007 at 09:04 AM | Permalink


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I agree it was a good editorial but they did not provide sufficient information to support their opinion that the parole system had not malfunctioned. If you have overcrowded prisons and you do not increase the staff size of the parole board they will be overloaded and a parole system malfunction becomes very likely. Furthermore the BOP is probably under a lot of pressure to parole as many prisoners as possible.

If there are more similar editorials the Michigan legislature may avoid the common reaction to public outrage and make some needed changes. There are very angry and emotional people who will say that no level of risk is acceptable. If that is policy then the no risk solution is incarceration for life. As the editorial pointed out Michigan is unable to provide the funds needed to maintain their present sentencing policy. We have friends in Michigan and the tell us that property values have fallen and tax revenues are down and every level of government has large deficits.

Posted by: JSN | Sep 6, 2007 10:02:04 AM

The serial murders (or alleged serial murders) show just how dangerous criminals can be. Thus, when the editorial speaks in terms of some crimes being committed by parolees, what they're saying is that some people will lose their lives as a result of this policy. The editorial writers should be a bit more honest.

A prison bed is a scarce resource. There is little doubt about that. Thus, it makes sense to fill prison beds on the basis of danger to society. But that doesn't seem to be what's going on here. Dangerous criminals or repeated serious offenders need to be removed from society, and a budget crisis does not change that. A guy, for example, who breaks into a home and rapes a woman shouldn't get out until he's and old man. A repeat armed robber should not get out until he's an old man. Now, I understand the need for safety valves to help the truly rehabilitated, but releasing violent criminals into society to save a little money is wrong.

By the way, perhaps if Michigan's elected officials could do something about the state's economy (i.e., by getting out of the way), this problem wouldn't exist.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 6, 2007 10:17:13 AM

Maybe the should stop incarcerating non-violent drug offenders at such high rates and perhaps they'd have room for the really bad guys.

Posted by: CJT | Sep 6, 2007 10:53:50 AM

PLease define "non-violent" drug offenders. Casual users? Pushers?

Posted by: federalist | Sep 6, 2007 11:09:30 AM

Perhaps citizens in Texas should stop buying foreign cars and cheap merch at Wal-Mart (with an extra dollop of lead paint) and people in Michigan might still have their jobs and not need to bop each other on the head for drug money. The economy in Detroit has little to do with the Government and lot to do with greedy, cheapskate consumers.

Posted by: dweedle | Sep 6, 2007 11:26:31 AM

The Michigan Department of Corrections 2005 Statistical Report (the most recent available) shows that Michigan sent 11,306 of the 49,467 people convicted of felonies to prison that year, or about 22.8%. There were 11,467 people convicted of assualtive offenses, or about 23.8% of the total, but 4,628 of them, or about 40.4% of that group, went to prison. There were 24,464 people convicted of non-assualtive felonies, or about 49% of all felony convictions, and 4,913, or 20%, of them went to prison. There were 13,528 people convicted of drug felonies, or about 27% of all felony offenders. Of them, 1,765, or about 13%, went to prison. Another way to look at these numbers is to say that of the 11,306 who went to prison, 4,913, or 43.4%, went for non-assaultive offenses. Parole rates are about 70% for drug offenders, about 10% for sex offenders, about 33% for other assaultive offenders, and about 45% for the other, non-assualtive, offenders. It seems that we need to concentrate our attention especially on avoiding sending non-assaultive offenders to prison.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Sep 6, 2007 11:38:58 AM

Federalist, I need to ask you this question. How many people (percentage wise) in jail in your opinion are violent? Give me a number,10, 20 ,30 ,40 what is it? let say your number is 75%, why not talk about releasing the 25% (non-violent) and stop talking about violent criminals. Hey, we all in an agreement about locking violent criminals up. But I never ever hear you talk about non-violent criminals. It seemed that you have a fixation on violent criminals and blinded by this. I would like to hear your opinion for once on adhering to releasing non-violent criminals. Are there any hope we may hear this from you?

Posted by: | Sep 6, 2007 12:01:08 PM

The ABA policy is that incarceration should be reserved for persons who are a threat to public safety or are habitual offenders. In general I agree with this policy but I would like precise definitions of "threat to public safety" and "habitual offender". If the individual has been repeatedly convicted of assault at the misdemeanor level should the offense type be enhanced to a felony and the sentenced served in prison rather than a shorter sentence in jail? Should there be a difference in the sentence for a person convicted of selling drugs to children than the sentence for a person selling drugs to an adult?

My studies of Iowa prison inmates show that many of the persons who serve short sentences (less than five years) for property and drug crimes are returnees. How many times do they have to return to be considered a habitual offenders? A substantial fraction of this set of returnees are addicted to alcohol/drugs some of then were never treated and most of them had no community aftercare for alcohol/drug abuse. To apply a rigid rule about the number of repeat offenses without dealing with the substance abuse problem is bad public policy in my opinion.

Posted by: JSN | Sep 6, 2007 12:33:54 PM

JSN: If there was ever a set of figures that make recidivism rates look good it is the rates for successful drug and alcohol treatment. 47% of drug abusers relapse within ONE year (using 1986, "pre-crack" numbers from NIDA), and nearly 65% percent of treatment fails within 5 years. I can't find a more recent "comprehensive" study that contains data reflecting the changes since the crack epidemic, mostly because I imagine the facts (70%? 80%?) would cause a loss of millions of dollars for the rehab industry and the associated government agencies that depend on rehab being a mythical cure (like NIDA). Recidivism (measured last by the BJS in 1994 "post-crack") is 67% across the board nationally.

Just as some people here like to bash po' ol' Federalist for not considering alternatives, some of us are equally tired of hearing the old "treatment" canard.

Treatment does work to "cure" unfortunate behavior patterns, but only very rarely.

Incarceration also works to cure unfortunate behavior arguably almost as often as treatment, and one thing that is certain about incarceration vs. treatment is that the recidivism rate during a inmate's stay in prison is pretty darn low.

Also, some wags might suggest that there are plenty of "functioning" addicts and alcoholics in this and other societies that manage not to rob, maim, and kill.

Perhaps there is something more than addiction at work in recidivism rates? I mean, if facts happen to matter.

Posted by: dweedle | Sep 6, 2007 4:16:21 PM

dweedle, and your point is......? Relapse v. recidivism?

(old "treatment" canard) It's funny how people select certain things to back their argument instead of looking at the whole picture. I surrender, lock up everybody!

Posted by: | Sep 6, 2007 5:32:21 PM

My point in comparing the two is that drug abuse, treated or not, is often used as a reason for the latter (as in JSN's comment), and as a preface for saying that treatment is a "cure" under utilized. I think that's a leap given the stats that are available.

Pretty simple.

Posted by: dweedle | Sep 6, 2007 5:42:30 PM


I don't think your statistics tell the complete story. The rates you are quoting are probably for programs without aftercare.

I have been told by people in the alcohol/drug treatment field that alcohol/drug treatment in prison is a waste of money. They say what works better is community based alcohol/drug treatment and aftercare and if there is no aftercare it is a waste of money.

We do know that about 60% of the prisoners who have been diagnosed with a having a substance abuse problem are released without any treatment and the highest return rates are for prisoners charged with a DUI or drug offenses. An unrelated statistic is that the lowest return rates are for sex offenders.

Six of our Judicial Districts have drug courts and one District did not because of a shortage of judges (it is starting up now). Drug court communities have alcohol/drug treatment programs with some aftercare and they claim fairly good results as do drug court programs in other states. The difference between the district with no drug court and those that do is that with a drug court is treatment is mandatory and they have more resources. Meth addiction is hard to treat so the failure rates for persons treated for meth addiction are high and we have a lot of meth addicts.

If the drug court works the offender does not go to prison and the prison population will be biased toward the cases that are harder to treat.

Posted by: JSN | Sep 6, 2007 5:53:38 PM

"Claim pretty good results" isn't very... er... verifiable is it? Also, although I don't have time to track it down now, drug courts in Texas have had very, very mixed results in the short time they have been operating. I think the idea that recidivism can be traced to the lack of aftercare is simply baseless. The fact that you cannot do more than quote anecdotes from staff (who presumably have jobs due in part to these programs) is also not informative.

How about some facts that support these conclusions?

Posted by: dweedle | Sep 6, 2007 6:12:38 PM

although treatmnent works sometimes, I think people who think it is the only answer have never tried to get an addict to go to treatment. The first year of a special drug treattment we had here in California in my small county, we had four people die but only one complete the program. Things have improved since that first year though.

Posted by: Jeff | Sep 6, 2007 8:04:32 PM


I did a quick comparison of drug and DUI prisoners between districts with drug courts and the 6th district which does not have a drug court and the return rates for drug offenders and DUI charges showed no difference for drug offenders and lower a lower return rate for the DUI inmates from the 6th district. So I have egg on my face and you are justified to be skeptical.

On the other hand I don't think the substance abuse treatment people I quoted are wrong. As I noted earlier the people sent to prison are the ones who were never treated or the treatment failed. There is nothing simple about substance abuse treatment and doing nothing means we incarcerate people over and over again because we cannot afford to lock them up for life.

We have about 2,200 people out of 8,600 in prison where the most serious charge is drugs or DUI. The return rate for drug offenders is 29% and for DUI about 70%. What we are doing about DUI is not working and we need to try a different approach (they have to be supervised for life in my opinion). I am not willing to give up on the drug offenders I think treatment and aftercare can make a difference.

By the way a return rate of 29% for drug offenders may seem high to you but other people would consider that to be very good it all depends on the frame of reference.

Posted by: JSN | Sep 6, 2007 8:28:04 PM

dweedle, have you ever been addicted to drug? Surely, you are not relying on articles. There is nothing perfect in any suggestions one may make. But, if there is some successes in drug programs then somebody may be saved. I have been clean for 20 years, yes, I am a recovery addict. It galled me when people like you think you know what you're talking about. I have sponsored several people and guess what, most of them relapse but the ones who stuck around is the reason that I know the program works. In any endeavors, you will find a lot of failures but if it help one person then it worth it. I could give you some reasons why it's difficult for some people to get the message of recovery but it would take up too much of my time trying to explain to folks like you who don't give a damn.

Posted by: | Sep 7, 2007 12:01:31 PM

Maybe the people in Michigan are worse than people in other states. I don't know if they are better than Texans, but I guess we could build a wall around Michigan, too.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 7, 2007 3:34:31 PM

Hey Anon, I think that's just wonderful that some small % get their acts together, but it clearly isn't a solution or the "magic bullet" alternative to incarceration that some people claim it is. The numbers don't lie.

Posted by: dweedle | Sep 12, 2007 4:32:24 PM

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