A broken criminal justice system? Fact vs. myth

BY CHARLEVOIX COUNTY PROSECUTING ATTORNEY ALLEN TELGENHOF

Recently, President Obama spoke to the NAACP about what he and others have taken to calling our “broken” criminal justice system.

It’s a popular notion, championed by presidential candidates on both sides as well as such diverse folks as the Americans for Tax Reform and the Koch brothers on the right and the ACLU, the NAACP and the Center for American Progress on the left.

The problem is, as with much proposed legislation, that it is a solution in search of a problem. At least that is true in the state of Michigan.
Though it is expensive to house prisoners—$35,149 per inmate per year in Michigan—the facts are that, in Michigan, we have the right people in prison.

If this is truly the case, early release is not the answer.

Before we can argue about the solution, we need to have the facts in order to make a well-informed decision.

Following are some myths that have appeared repeatedly in speeches, articles and editorials, followed by the facts according to Michigan Prisoners, Violent Crime and Public Safety: A Prosecutor’s Report, a compilation published by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

The “Broken” Criminal Justice System – Myths And Realities

Myth #1 – The “War on Drugs” is out of control, resulting in the overcrowding of our prisons
Fact – in Michigan, only 8 percent of prison inmates are in for drug offenses. The national average is 17 percent. Of Michigan’s 43,704 inmates in 2013, only 11 were there because of possession of marijuana.

Myth #2 – Judges usually send convicted felons to prison
Fact – Only 10 percent of those who commit felonies are initially sentenced to prison. Adding in probation and parole violations increases the number to 21.6 percent of convicted felons who end up in prison.
The national average is 40 percent.

Myth #3 – Early release of inmates does not hurt anyone
Fact – The vast majority, over 70 percent, of Michigan’s prisoners committed violent or assaultive crimes. The release of these individuals could seriously negatively impact public safety in Michigan.

Myth #4 – Michigan has too many law enforcement officers
Fact – While Michigan has the highest violent crime rate in the Midwest, including four cities that have previously been named in the top 10 most violent in the country—Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Detroit—we also have the lowest percentage of law enforcement personnel to residents.

Myth #5 – Mandatory minimum sentences lead to unfairly lengthy sentences
Fact – In Michigan, we have very few mandatory minimum sentences, all for very serious crimes.
• First degree murder – mandatory life sentence
• Conviction of a serious felony, while having three prior felony convictions, including a violent offense – mandatory 25 year minimum
• Criminal sexual conduct penetration with a child under 13 – mandatory 25 year minimum
• Criminal sexual conduct after a prior CSC conviction – mandatory 5 year minimum
• Commission of a felony with a firearm – mandatory 2 years in prison

Myth #6 – Convicted felons are less likely to re-offend if given probation rather than prison
Fact – From 2008 to 2011, the re-arrest rates for parolees, following prison sentences, declined by 20 percent while the re-arrest rates for probationers remained unchanged.

Approximately half of the inmates in Michigan prisons were sentenced there for violating their probation or parole.

Part of the reason for this may be that the ratio of parolees to residents supervised was 10 percent lower than the national average, while the ratio of probationers to residents supervised was 56 percent higher than the national average.

There is no question that corrections occupies a large piece of our state budget.

For Fiscal Year 2014, the $2 billion spent on corrects was less than 4 percent of the state’s overall budget but approximately 20 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

The increase in costs of caring for prisoners has largely been driven by health care costs for inmates.

In 2011, Michigan spent $7,485 per inmate on health care, the most in the Midwest.

Since that time, however, the cost has dropped to approximately $6,450 in 2014, saving approximately $45 million per year.

The bottom line is that it appears that, in Michigan, prisons are used to separate our violent and repeat criminals for the protection of society, the purpose for which they are intended.

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