Time for Justice Reform in Michigan

This op-ed was originally published at The Detroit News on June 28, 2016.

The 19th century novelist Victor Hugo once said that there’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Justice reform is clearly just such an idea, as evidenced by the Michigan state Senate’s unanimous passage this month of a 20-bill overhaul package designed to reduce recidivism and save state taxpayer dollars.

The legislation, being championed by state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, would work to reduce parole and probation revocations, standardize the definition of recidivism and offer incentives to people employing parolees.

These reforms are chiefly focused on improving public safety and reducing recidivism in Michigan—which, after all, must always remain the first and foremost consideration in justice reform. At the same time, they are designed to reduce the cost of corrections in Michigan, which spends $95.84 per offender per day. That’s nearly $35,000 a year each.

The reason so much emphasis in the reform package is being placed on reducing recidivism and reforming probation and parole is simple: Almost half of Michigan’s state prison population of 42,000 comprise parole and probation violators, and of the 42,000 in prison today, about 38,000 will eventually return to society.

As Proos has argued, Michigan spends too much time and treasure putting people behind bars and not enough on proactive measures to ensure that offenders are rehabilitated and prepared for life outside prison walls.

  1. Senate Bill 934 would allow probationers to earn a shorter probation term through good behavior. “One size fits all” probation supervision terms do little to incentivize compliance or success, and this reform would free up probation officers to better focus their time and efforts on those who require them most.
  2. SB 935 would provide incentives to parole departments that are able to reduce parole revocations. In Texas, doing so cut parole revocations by half, reducing crime and taxpayer costs accordingly.
  3. SB 937 would standardize the definition of “recidivism” across agencies. The recidivism rate is a core measure of the success of corrections, and if agencies are not sufficiently collecting data on it or even defining it the same way, it makes it difficult to accurately evaluate the efficacy of corrections spending.
  4. SB 940 would streamline access to prison facilities for volunteer organizations such as the late Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship and would encourage partnerships with these nonprofit organizations. Their programming and counseling can serve a critical role in improving offender outcomes.
  5. SB 945 would allow the placement of younger offenders, ages 18 to 22, in separate housing modules from older inmates to better serve the distinct rehabilitation needs of the young offenders. Such early intervention also holds the promise of diverting them from a life of crime.
  6. SB 946 would provide for grants of up to $2,400 for employers who hire those on probation and parole. Studies have shown that gainful employment is the single most important tool for reducing recidivism.

Until now, government spending on corrections has gone largely unscrutinized and, worse, has not been held to account for results. The Senate has done its job, and the ball is now firmly in the House’s court.

It should promptly follow the Senate’s lead and send this justice reform package to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for signing into law.

Jason Pye is communications director at FreedomWorks and a partner of the U.S. Justice Action Network.