A recent study from The Pew Center on the States confirms the findings contained in a 2008 CRC report on Michigan’s corrections system. Pew’s recent findings also align with what other organizations, both national and Michigan-based, have found to be true about the interaction of Michigan’s sentencing structure and parole policies. The bottom line in all these studies: Michigan public policies have resulted in prisoners being incarcerated longer than they used to and longer than other states.
CRC found in its report, Growth in Michigan’s Corrections System: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, that the average length of stay for a prisoner increased 57 percent from 28 months in 1981 to 44 months in 2005. When the nature of the offense was considered, Michigan’s length of stay was 1.2 years longer than the national average in 2003.
CRC found that the causes for the changes over time and with respect to other states were manifold. Contributors to Michigan’s prison population growth and attendant average length of stay included the adoption of sentencing guidelines, elimination of disciplinary credits, and declining parole approval rates.
Specifically looking at parole policies in the state revealed that the average annual parole approval rate was 66 percent prior to the 1992 parole board change from civil service; however, this declined to 54 percent in 2006, under the new parole board configuration. The most dramatic declines were for assaultive and sex offenders. As a result, prisoners serving past their earliest release date went from 16 percent of the total population in 1991 to 31 percent in 2006.
CRC concluded that if Michigan’s average length of stay had been one year shorter between 1990 and 2005, it would have had measurable effects on state government finances. Specifically, Michigan would have incarcerated roughly 14,000 fewer prisoners; spent about $400 million less, and; employed roughly 4,700 fewer Department of Corrections employees.
At the time CRC published its report, the State of Michigan was spending $2 billion for the Department of Corrections. Although the prison population has declined substantially since then (from 49,000 prisoners in 2008 to 44,000 prisoners today), spending remains at $2 billion for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2013 state budget. Both the recent Pew study and CRC’s report suggest that Michigan’s prison population and corrections spending could be reduced measurably if prisoner average length of stay was aligned with national norms.