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Strengthen Neighborhoods and Reduce Prison Sentences

A Better Alternative to Extreme Sentencing in Michigan

by CHLOE COCKBURN and ALEX STAMM

Imagine you hear gunshots down the street and you call the police, but they take an hour to show up. Imagine the victim is your son, and you don’t call the ambulance because you know it isn’t coming, so you drive to the hospital yourself. These are real stories from Detroit, a city so broke it can’t afford to keep its street lamps lit.

Now imagine that your state is wasting over a billion dollars a year on a policy that’s not making your streets any safer. That’s actually happening in Michigan. Rather than spending that money on more police, more ambulances, or working street lights, the state spends its resources adding years of extra time to prison sentences — extra years that haven’t been shown to have any public safety benefit.

The irony of this waste is nowhere more bitter than in Detroit, once a gleaming jewel of industrial progress, now the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. There is no doubt this bankruptcy will cause Detroit’s municipal services to deteriorate even further.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan readily coughs up about half of a billion dollars a year to house the thousands of prisoners from Wayne County – far more than from any other county in the state. This is allegedly the price of protecting public safety.

And yet, there is no indication that Michigan’s sentencing practices, which are wildly out of step with the rest of the country, have improved peoples’ lives. Michigan prisoners serve more time in prison per conviction than those in any other state: 4.3 years behind bars, almost 50% more than the national average of 2.9 years. Though some might argue that this is somehow due to high rates of violent crime, in fact Michigan’s sentences are among the nation’s longest for every type of crime. State prisoners end up serving by far the most time for violent crimes, and come in 2nd and 4th in the country when it comes to drug and property crimes, respectively.

These extra years of incarceration are not doing much to keep communities safe. We know from research that sentence severity has little or no effect on the level of crime in society. It also has little effect on the recidivism, or re-offense, rates of those who are incarcerated; a national study in 2002 found that recidivism rates for those who served 60 months in prison was nearly the same as it was for those serving only seven months. A review of 50 years of studies found a higher rate of recidivism associated with longer sentences. This shouldn’t be surprising—the longer the sentence, the more a prisoner is institutionalized, the less contact he or she has with social supports outside of prison, and the further removed he or she will be from employment when released.

In other words, Michigan’s massive over-investment in extreme sentencing for Wayne county citizens is doing little to preserve healthy, safe communities in Detroit, while it is doing a lot to strain financial resources and saddle people convicted of crimes with excess years of destructive incarceration.

The money wasted on unnecessarily long sentences could be better spent on things that Detroit’s neighborhoods desperately need. There are 42,900 people in Michigan state prisons. Each of them costs the state $2,343 each month. If state prisoners simply served the national average of 35 months instead of 52 months, the state would save $1.7 billion per year. Even a fraction of that money could make a world of difference if invested in the communities struggling to hold themselves together. That money could clean up damaged neighborhoods, promote business investment, and restore confidence in emergency services. If given the option, how would you spend it?

Chloe Cockburn is an advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU.

Alex Stamm is a paralegal at the ACLU.