The Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative began about five years ago in response to an economic crisis and the financial toll that a growing prison system placed on the state’s budget. The result has been a major retooling of Michigan’s corrections department – in policy, attitudes and culture.
The implications of this change were the topic of a panel discussion on Monday at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. The four panelists – the director of Michigan’s Dept. of Corrections, two state legislators (including local Democrat Alma Wheeler Smith) and a veteran Lansing reporter – seemed in general agreement about the need for a program like MPRI. But they also agreed that changing the system has far-reaching implications, and they raised concerns about how the upcoming turnover in state government will impact the program’s future.
Discussion also touched on some difficulties faced because of the economy: Communities where prisons are located take a hit when those facilities are closed, and former prisoners have a tough time finding jobs because more people in general are competing for fewer positions. This latter topic has emerged in previous Chronicle coverage – the Washtenaw County MPRI held a summit in September 2009 focused on how to create jobs for former prisoners.
What Is MPRI? Some Background
The concept of a program to help released prisoners integrate back into their communities was part of the justice policy platform in the campaign of Jennifer Granholm – who was then the state’s attorney general – when she first ran for governor in 2002. After her election, planning began in 2003 with the state Dept. of Corrections, the consulting firm Public Policy Associates, and the nonprofit Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency to roll out pilot programs in several counties.
Washtenaw County, then with a recidivism rate of about 75%, was among the second wave of counties in the pilot program, launching MPRI in late 2006.
MPRI provides a range of services, beginning with an assessment of inmates while they’re still in prison. There’s a strong focus on employment readiness, including literacy and other basic job skills. The actual transition phase starts about six months before their release date, when individualized plans are developed to address issues of housing, transportation and employment. MPRI staff also deal with potential substance abuse and mental health issues, if relevant.
After being released, former prisoners get continued support from MPRI’s network for at least 90 days, depending on their needs. “This is not a one-size-fits-all program,” said Jeffrey Padden, who founded Public Policy Associates and moderated Monday’s forum.
Forum Panelists: Different Perspectives
Patricia Caruso, director of the state’s Dept. of Corrections, described the genesis of MPRI as growing directly out of Michigan’s economic crisis, which hit this state before the rest of the country. The crisis was a factor in electing Granholm, who ushered in reforms to address the ballooning corrections budget. Caruso was deputy director of the corrections department when Granholm came into office, and was promoted to director to oversee what Padden had described earlier in the forum as a “stunningly difficult challenge.”
The existing system wasn’t making the public safer, Caruso said, and was using general fund revenues that could be better spent elsewhere. She alluded to a description of the nation as having an economy based on the prison-industrial complex [a phrase originally coined by Eric Schlosser in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly article]. “I will tell you, there’s a lot of truth to that,” she said.
Even now, having downsized over the past seven years, the Dept. of Corrections employs about 16,000 workers statewide. Part of the transformation Caruso oversaw has included closing prisons, which are often a community’s major employer, she noted. Though there might be agreement in general that having fewer prisons is a positive thing, no community defines “success” as eliminating a major employer, she said. “The politics of that are very difficult.”
Another challenge to MPRI has been the argument that “something bad will happen,” Caruso said. She argued that something bad will happen, no matter what they do – in that way, dealing with criminal behavior is the ultimate human business, she said. But people shouldn’t structure their lives around fear.
The corrections department is trying to make decisions based on risk, not fear, she said. They’ve invested in equipment and personnel – like GPS tethers and additional parole agents – that are focused on keeping people out of prison. Three years ago, the system hit a high of 51,554 inmates, Caruso said. Today, there are roughly 45,000 people in Michigan’s prisons.
Caruso concluded by saying she was 100% convinced that the approach they’re taking, including MPRI, is making the population safer. Even if the economic crisis hadn’t driven this change, she said, “I would not change the direction we’re going.”
State Legislators Weigh In
Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem Township) chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on corrections. A former state senator, she recalled when she first was elected to the legislature in the mid-1990s, the attitude was to keep people in prison for as long as possible. But 95% of prisoners are eventually released, she said, and the state wasn’t doing a good job preparing inmates to return to their communities.
Dealing with mental health issues is a large part of that, Smith said. She noted that when she served on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners years ago, the sheriff at the time complained to her, saying “I am not the mental health institution for the state of Michigan.” Because the state doesn’t allocate resources to serving people with mental health issues, they often end up in the criminal justice system, which doesn’t serve anyone well, she said.
Smith argued that MPRI should start even earlier in the process, beginning with “intake,” when prisoners are first incarcerated – but the state’s budget crisis has not provided sufficient resources for that, she said.
Like Caruso, Smith also cautioned that some people will fail, even with the support of MPRI, but she noted that there had been some spectacular failures in the past without that support, when parolees committed murders after getting out of prison. These failures then became the anecdotal reasons that people used to wrap public policy around, Smith said. There was a period in Michigan when paroles virtually stopped.
Smith said the state needs to change its policy behind its sentencing guidelines, which determine a prisoner’s length of stay. Allowing prisoners who are deemed safe to be released after serving 85% of their minimum sentence – reviving the so-called “good time” credits – would be one approach, she said. However, that’s not a proposal finding much support in the legislature, she added.
The argument against this proposal is typically that Michigan has a truth in sentencing law, requiring that 100% of a sentence be served. Smith noted that 36 other states and the federal government have the same law, yet they are “truthful” at 85%.
Smith said she’d like to see other changes as well. Assuming that confidentiality concerns can be addressed, she’d like to see prison guards, medical staff and social workers who have direct contact with prisoners make recommendations to the parole board about who is ready to be released, without causing a public safety threat.
Smith said the state wasn’t making changes in haste, and that reforms were using evidence-based information.
Rep. John Proos, a Republican from Berrien County in southwest Michigan, serves with Smith as minority vice chair on the House appropriations subcommittee on corrections. He also noted that with 95% of prisoners being eventually released, the state needs to ensure a high level of public safety by doing more than just giving parolees a bus ticket home.
Even with MPRI, there are challenges to making a transition, Proos said. The head of the Michigan Works jobs program in his district reported that only about 10% of parolees can be placed in jobs – there’s fierce competition in this economy, and it’s a rare employer who’ll hire a former felon when there are other candidates.
Proos cited term limits as a threat to MPRI – it’s important to inform freshman legislators about the program, so that they’ll know why it’s worth supporting, he said. But the biggest threat, he said, is the “bad thing” that Caruso and Smith had already mentioned – the inevitable time when a parolee commits another crime. When that happens, Proos said, there’ll be a contraction in the legislature around these initiatives.
Regardless of political party, Proos said, they can wholeheartedly agree on the importance of providing services inside and out of prison that make the public safe and the parolee successful in society.
A Journalist’s Perspective
Peter Luke covers politics and state government for Booth Newspapers, a chain that includes the Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette and five other newspapers in Michigan – and previously included the Ann Arbor News, which closed last year.
Pointing to the common newsroom axiom “if it bleeds, it leads,” Luke described crime stories as having a real hold on the imagination. You can report the who, what, where and how – but if there’s also a “why,” then the story really has legs.
Crime reporting contributed to the push to take a tougher stance on crime and to the state’s prison-building boom, which kicked into high gear during the Blanchard administration in the 1980s. At the time, the state could afford it, Luke said, because general fund revenues were growing.
By fiscal 1989, the corrections budget was $633 million. In 1990, John Engler was elected governor and served three terms. Luke recalled interviewing Engler during his third term, and asked him about the scenario – only theoretical at the time for Michigan – of state spending on prisons surpassing spending on higher education. Engler told him that would be a terrible outcome, but Luke noted that since then, state funding has been cut in virtually all areas except corrections. Today, the department’s budget for the coming fiscal year is nearly $2 billion, outpacing the proposed $1.6 billion budget for higher education.
A watershed year for the state was 2007, Luke said, when the government shut down briefly because of its budget crisis and legislators passed the Michigan Business Tax, which raised roughly $700 million in new taxes. That caused the business community to become more engaged, he said, and to recognize that the current system was economically unsustainable.
It also led editorial boards across the state to be more supportive of programs like MPRI, Luke said. But the administration hasn’t done a good job in explaining its policy regarding the transformation of corrections, he added. There would likely be broad public support if people understood specific aspects of MPRI. If you explained that it’s important that every prisoner know how to read, for example, most people would agree.
Luke concluded by returning to his observation about the business community, noting that they understand there won’t be tax breaks unless the cost of government is lowered. And since everything else has been shaved down dramatically, he said, “prisons are really the only place you can look.”
More information about the Washtenaw County MPRI, coordinated by Mary King and housed at the nonprofit Catholic Social Services, can be found online. Monday’s forum was hosted by the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, housed at the UM Ford School of Public Policy.