Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, is gettin’ his 1970’s groove-on … when it comes to law enforcement, that is. This means being “tough on crime” with more cops, more arrests, more prosecutors, more convictions, and longer sentences, through the continuation of a politically motivated trend that originated four decades ago, and over those years has shown no sign of being effective in crime prevention or in the promotion of public safety.
Governor Rick Snyder, however, is cautiously meeting Scheutte only halfway. Both officials understand that crime rates in Michigan, (which remain joined at the hip to its failing economy), are bad — really bad. Detroit and Flint are neck-and-neck, coming in third and fourth on the 25 most dangerous cities list. Clearly something must be done, but the governor, a known bean-counter, is taking a hard look at the cost of Michigan’s aggressive conviction and incarceration policies. Indeed, spending $33,000 per year, per inmate should give anyone reason for pause. Michigan’s annual corrections budget already comes in at a cool two billion. It takes a lot of money and manpower to house its current 43,000 inmates.
Governor Snyder recently revealed a “Smart Justice” plan in his public safety address, in which he recommends some significant increases in the crime fighting budget. Among them are the following highlights from the Secure Cities Partnership initiative: $15 million to graduate 180 new state troopers designated to work with local urban units of government, $10 million to go to public safety programs, $5 million to hire twenty new forensic scientists, $900 thousand for enhanced prosecutorial support, and a whopping $4.5 million in Flint alone for expanded jail capacity.
Additionally, Snyder put forth myriad other recommendations with no mention of state budgetary support. Most will remain nothing more than the governor blowing political sunshine up the skirts of corrections policy wonks. But, some of these ideas will work themselves on to the plates of Michigan lawmakers, and will be swallowed like an unfortunate bar food decision, only to be spewed out their legislative posteriors in yet more unconstitutional unfunded mandates further burdening already stressed local units of government. This in turn causes Michigan cities and towns to cut other important programs and services like libraries and street lights. Michigan lawmakers, giddy and still drunk from their legislative binge, won’t see the connection between the elimination of those amenities and the overall increase in crime.
This transference of cost from the top down has also been occurring outside of the legislative arena in quietly insidious forms under Snyder. When fourteen Michigan State Police posts were closed last year, their offices and troopers set-up camp in township offices — completely rent free. In fact, 60 townships offered space just to keep law enforcement in their communities. Members of the Michigan Township Association would rather give them the space completely gratis, than lose the protection. In all, twelve townships, most of them very small and lacking any other ready police force, sacrificed their meager digs to house a service that should have been state-funded.
Granted, Michigan already devotes 22 percent of its general fund to the Department of Corrections. By way of comparison, they spend an embarrassing pittance, only 13 percent, on higher education for their future business and community leaders. The state clearly must get a grip on its priorities.
As reported by Ron French, in Bridge Magazine, not all Republicans are on-board with this proposed corrections spending-spree. The very conservative Michigan House Rep. Joe Haveman (R), chairman of the House Appropriations Corrections subcomittee, believes that sentencing reform is the smart and the moral way to go. Michigan simply can not continue to sustain the seemingly endless incarceration of, in particular, non-violent criminals — it is too costly, it increases recidivism, and it’s just plain wrong. Rep. Haveman is not alone in his thinking, 26 other states have already enacted prison reform laws that make meaningful economic and ethical sense.
This is why Governor Snyder may opt to get on board the reform train and thumb his nose at Schuette’s outdated way of thinking.
The question at hand should not be restricted to budgetary concerns, nor should it center on the desire to appear to be “tough on crime”. The salient and thoughtful question must be: “What is a proven method of protecting public safety, reducing recidivism, all while keeping the budget in check?”
These are Drug Courts, Sobriety Courts, Mental Health Courts, and Veterans Treatment Courts. They’ve become a growing trend across the nation, and Michigan has been in the thick of it. Fiscal conservatives endorse them because they are proven money-savers and quantitatively reduce crime, and social progressives like them because they are an effective and compassionate means of addressing the core social and economic problems facing offenders. These courts provide treatment for the underlying causes of the problem rather than just more of the endlessly revolving door of incarceration.
In the 2011 Michigan State Court Administrative Office’s report on the effectiveness of Drug Courts (which include Sobriety Courts) the state found the following:
* Four years after admission to the program, participants showed a 48 percent reduction in recidivism compared to non-participants.
* Sobriety Courts in particular, consistently demonstrated reductions in repeat offenses.
The Muskegon County Sobriety Court just recently received a good rating in an independent study conducted by Western Michigan University. The court showed a 65 percent graduation rate, and statistics indicate that non-graduates are twice as likely to re-offend as graduates.
Michigan is a leader in Sobriety Courts, of the 176 nationally, Michigan has 26 of those, and with growing success, will likely be expanding them county-by-county.
One of the newer Specialty Courts is the Veterans Treatment Court. There are currently only four such courts in Michigan, but more are scheduled to open as we see an increase in the veteran population. The 2010 census data shows nearly three-quarter of a million veterans living in Michigan — that’s 7.4 percent of the state’s population. Macomb County announced they are launching a court for veterans in April of 2012. This court will allow veterans charged with certain types of crimes to enter into an intensive 1 to 2 year program that will provide treatment and support for the array of problems they face: mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse, unemployment, and homelessness. The program is staffed by veterans themselves — people who have personal experience with the difficulties participants are working to overcome.
So where does Governor Snyder stand on Specialty Courts?
According to Jessica Parks, statewide manager of the program, the governor is prepared to fund an expansion of the program. Snyder plans to increase the Mental Health Court budget from $1.65 million to $2.1 million per year, and to add another Mental Health Court in Saginaw, additionally he is calling for the launch of several Urban Drug Courts in high crime areas, and intends to put $1.25 million into that initiative.
This is good news for Michigan, and a sound decision on the part of its leadership. The motivation on Snyder’s part may be purely economic, and the social good that results could be merely coincidental, yet it is one bright spot — a ray of hope for a state long plagued by economic woes and the crime that follows.
So, Governor Snyder may not be groovin’ on the love and peace aspect of doing the right thing, but he is, after all, in this one case … actually… doing the right thing.
Amy Kerr Hardin