Governor Pushing for Sentencing Changes

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Unfazed by past failures, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration again is pushing to change Michigan's sentencing laws so fewer criminals are locked in state prisons and county jails.
And its latest proposal may be the most ambitious yet.
Some felonies would become one-year misdemeanors. Other crimes would have shorter maximum sentences. Some drug offenders would face a maximum three-month jail term, not the potential for up to four years in prison.
The result?
The $2 billion prison system -- which consumes more of the state's tax dollars than its 15 public universities -- would house 3,300 fewer inmates over three years. Space in crowded county jails would drop by 2,000 beds in a year, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Incarcerating fewer criminals would save money at a time state government is facing a serious budget shortfall, which leaves local communities with additional funding problems, too.
"We need these sentencing reforms," said corrections spokesman Russ Marlan. "If we want to see significant costs savings, we need to decrease the prison population."
But Granholm is encountering resistance from local law enforcement and other officials whose opposition derailed previous attempts at sentencing changes in 2004 and 2005.
Counties fear being saddled with more inmates and incarceration costs, not less, and prosecutors and sheriffs warn the public could be at risk from more criminals on the streets.
"It compromises public safety for Michigan," said Saginaw County Prosecutor Mike Thomas.
Unlike when Republicans controlled the Legislature in her first term, Granholm appears to have an ally this time in the Democratic-led House, which could introduce her administration's massive sentencing package of 200-plus bills as early as this week. The bills have been in the works for months, and hearings may start next week.
"We need to make some policy decisions, and that's what I think these bills do from a standpoint of where do we best want to invest," said House Judiciary Chairman Paul Condino, a Democrat from Southfield. He argues that reasonable changes can be made while still safeguarding the public.
"I'd rather see us invest at the top end in education and schools and treatment as opposed to incarceration," Condino said.
The latest proposal is broader than past plans, which focused primarily on revising the points system that judges use for sentencing so more low-level offenders would get jail or probation instead of prison.
The new plan aims to keep offenders out of county jails as well -- making 140 felonies into misdemeanors, reducing penalties for 58 other felonies, reclassifying the time served for drug and property crimes, and putting lower-level offenders behind bars for less time.
For instance, criminals would have to steal $5,000 or more worth of property to be convicted of a felony -- the current threshold is $1,000. They could get even more time behind bars, however, for crimes totaling $100,000 or more.
Giving false information when applying for a driver's license, bribing an athlete, falsifying school records and using a computer to commit a crimes would become misdemeanors. Maximum penalties would drop for ballot tampering, counterfeiting a state ID card and fleeing the police.
In defending their plan, corrections officials cite a national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that nearly 5,000 more inmates will be in state prisons by the end of 2011, a 11 percent increase. The Michigan population, by comparison, is projected to grow by 2 percent in that time.
State government spends $31,000 a year housing one prisoner, and corrections is one of just two state departments covered by the general fund whose spending is higher now than six years ago.
"Unless states step up with some creative programs, it's only going to get worse," Marlan said. "The big difference this year is we show there will be a net decrease in the number of jail beds needed."
Tom Hickson, lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Counties, credits the state for being more creative with this year's proposal but still opposes it and wants to see data on the types of criminals it would affect.
He isn't convinced of claims that jails will see fewer criminals -- noting that plea bargains make it difficult to gauge whether prosecutors would just pick a harsher charge under the new system. He worries that $10 million in proposed new funding for counties wouldn't be enough to oversee more offenders in probation or community corrections programs.
"The No. 1 function of government is to protect the people," he said, sounding similar arguments made by Republicans who control the Senate. "If you're balancing the budget at the expense of that, what are you balancing it for?"
In February, Corrections Director Patricia Caruso discussed that point with lawmakers while highlighting Granholm's proposal to save $92 million in corrections spending in the budget that starts Oct. 1. She said: "We need to decide who we're afraid of and who we're mad at."


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