With the State of Michigan facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall this next fiscal year, the government is looking for ways to balance the budget without cutting too many services. One of the options in Committee right now is the package of House Bills 4497, 4498, and 4499. These bills would allow current and future prisoners to be released early for good time as long as certain criteria has been met. The bills, although expected to save the state money, have met with opposition from many such as victim's rights groups and legislators not wanting to appear soft on crime.
These bills would amend the Department of Corrections act to allow for prisoner good time accrual based on a tier system. This tier system would match the year the prisoner falls in their sentence with a monthly accrual of days off for good behavior. For example, in the 5th and 6th year of sentence, a prisoner could accrue up to 7 days off for good behavior. The maximum amount of days off that a prisoner could earn would be between 5 and 15 days per month, depending on how far into their original sentence they are. These bills would also delete any and all reference to "truth-in-sentencing".
One of the main problems opponents have of these bills is allowing for a prisoner to be paroled prior to serving the minimum term imposed by the court. All states now have some form of mandatory minimums. These bills would wipe away any type of minimum sentence, give more control to the parole boards, and take away some control from the courts. Victim's rights advocates would like to see the minimum terms kept in place and have the good behavior system start after the minimum time has been served. Law enforcement officials have also been outspoken opponents of these bills.
In the 80's under President Reagan we saw legislation pass that was hugely tough on crime. Although a lot of this legislation dealt with federal crime, the residual effects and the tough on crime ideology trickled down to the state levels as well. When John Engler was Governor in Michigan his administration was very tough on crime. More than 300 anti-crime bills were signed into law during his administration. Not only did he advocate for the construction of more prisons, he also advocated for the truth-in-sentencing laws that helped fill our prisons to more than capacity. Although there are statistics that show crime dropped as a result of these legislations, we are now looking at not being able to afford this system anymore.
In a report completed by House Fiscal Agency's analyst Marilyn Peterson, the savings estimated by the Department of Corrections would be approximately $42 million in FY 2010. This estimate is based upon releasing 7,550 prisoners within four to six months after these bills are enacted. The net savings annually after FY2010 would be approximately $107 million. Governor Granholm supports these bills as a way to help reduce the budget deficit.
Besides the financial aspect, these bills would generate additional positive impacts such as creating safer prisons. Corrections staff would gather some much needed control by being able to utilize the "carrot" to gain better prisoner compliance and behavior. The goal in Corrections should always be rehabilitation of inmates to reduce the prison population. These days off for good behavior would go a long way in encouraging rehabilitation.
These bills put in the spotlight the age-old debate of how much money should a government spend to keep the people safe, while rehabilitating prisoners at the same time. Our system of corrections needs to be improved so that the time spent in prison is time spent towards more effective rehabilitation. Bringing "Good Time" credit back will encourage good behavior and true rehabilitation of prisoners, all while reducing our corrections budget. Representative George Cushingberry, Jr, sponsor of the bills, sums it up nicely by saying "The correction is meant to be a place of rehabilitation, but it has turned into a very expensive holding pen. Everyone has made mistakes in their life, and prisoners are paying for those mistakes. It is our hope that good behavior on the inside translates to good behavior on the outside. In order to make Michigan a safer state, we need to focus on not only rehabilitating our prisoners, but ensuring that they aren't coming back to prison after finishing their sentence."