The premise underlying Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s special message to state legislators this week — that warehousing offenders for longer and longer prison terms has made Michigan no safer, and a good deal poorer, than states that are more selective about who they lock up — is old news to those who study criminal behavior, says Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson. The main elements of Snyder’s plan — sending fewer non-violent offenders to prison; releasing more aging inmates; and making sure that those leaving prison have the skills and resources they need to survive as law-abiding citizens — have proved their cost-effectiveness in other venues.
What is newsworthy, and hopeful, Dickerson says, is that a Republican governor is lobbying conservative Republican state legislators to embrace commonsense criminal justice as a way to cut government spending without savaging more productive investments in education, health care and infrastructure. Michigan lavishes nearly a quarter of its general fund tax revenues on prisons, and Snyder isn’t the first Republican to target the state’s $2-billion corrections budget. Snyder says a decades-long deluge of legislation increasing penalties or a wide variety of offenses has boosted the average minimum prison sentence by 8 1/2 months since 2006. There is little evidence the trend has had any impact on crime rates or recidivism, a point Snyder will doubtless stress with legislators who like to talk about making every government expenditure count.