The Cost of Paying a Debt to Society
Michigan has an opportunity for the development of an optimal criminal justice policy. Such a policy would equate to positive social and economic change. Responsible policy choices at every stage of the criminal justice system are essential.
We have an obligation to remember that individuals are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.
The high cost of housing inmates has long been a drain on the economy. This does not include the social costs of sending a criminal to prison and just expecting them to be “reformed” without the benefit of therapeutic or educational assistance. It costs more each year to keep one individual in prison than one full year of tuition, room and board in any of our state’s 4-year public universities.
Reducing the size of the inmate population makes fiscal as well as humanitarian sense. Rather than relying on lengthy incarceration, there are more effective ways for criminals to pay their debt to society.
Ninety-five (95%) of our prison population will eventually be released. With this in mind, it is absolutely in our communities’ best interest to maximize the possibility of success upon re-entry. Detroit City Council’s recent consideration to eliminate questions regarding convictions from city job applications and city contracts is evidence that we already recognize the difficulty in re-integration after release from prison. One of the most obvious ways to maximize success would be to grant release on parole after the minimum sentence is served, particularly with evidence of good behavior and participation in prison activities such as education. It is evident that the longer one stays imprisoned, the lower their chances become of finding work or maintaining a support network. However, there are currently 11,000 Michigan prisoners who have been denied parole and are still imprisoned. We choose to deny these significant opportunities.
Our system yields to the pressure to appear “tough on crime,” which leads to a tendency to over-punish.
How can we promote the most appropriate method of punishing those who break the law, while upholding our obligation to be fiscally responsible and good stewards of our budget, protecting the community, and promoting societal welfare at the same time?
There are several major ways of accomplishing this as suggested by juvenile justice scholars in law and adolescent development, and social justice advocates such as: developmentally based laws and policies making it possible for adolescents to grow into responsible adults rather than career criminals, collaborate between correctional systems and university systems to promote access to higher education and meaningful educational opportunities, reforming sentencing guidelines and reinstating the sentencing commission in order to assess how sentencing guidelines are working, restoring some form of good time, restoring community placements for prisoners who are near their first eligibility date, increasing parole approval rates, and increasing reliance on community court methods.
Many communities across the country are experiencing success by engaging their residents in a problem-solving approach in community courts. These courts aim to harness the power of the justice system to address local problems. The first of these opened in Midtown in New York City in 1993, and they have been able to report a $1.3 million savings annually from reduced retention costs and reduced future arrests.
We should discourage legislative efforts to over-punish. We should adopt criminal justice policies and practices that do not lead to the overutilization of our state’s available correctional resources and we should challenge a legal system that is mindlessly punitive. In our efforts to construct an optimal or even adequate criminal justice policy we can both protect the community and promote societal welfare and the reaching of one of the major goals of the corrections system: rehabilitation.
Michigan cannot afford to stay behind the curve in making strong choices that not only make sense for our fiscal future but help to promote more effective methods and the development of an optimal criminal justice policy.