Moving from mass incarceration to mass education

Added November 21st, 2014 by Judy Putnam | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Judy Putnam

Michigan needs to spend less on prisons and more on schools.

Between 1986 and 2013, Michigan’s spending on prisons jumped 147% when inflation is counted, according to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Meanwhile, per-pupil foundation spending in Michigan remains lower than before the Great Recession began.

“Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods. At least 30 states (including Michigan) are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation…’’ a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concludes.

Dennis Schrantz of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and Shaka Senghor of the Atonement Project at the League's recent policy forum.

Just last month, the League sponsored a policy forum on reducing mass incarceration. The upshot of the forum is that Michigan’s unusually long prison sentences mean that more dollars than necessary are being spent on corrections without improving public safety. And students are not getting what they need to avoid the “school to prison” pipeline.

Laura Sager, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, spoke about the need for a sentencing commission to examine Michigan’s sentencing structure with an eye on reducing the prison population.

Sager said that mandatory minimums and harsh penalties for drug offenses are not the cause of mass incarceration in Michigan. Unusually long prison sentences drive high costs without providing additional safety, she said. Judges set a minimum and maximum sentence but it is the state Parole Board has the ultimate decision on how much time a prisoner will serve after the minimum sentence is completed.Incarceration also costs $35,000 per inmate per year — more than a year of college at the University of Michigan.

A package of bills by Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, that could see action in lame-duck session next month, is aimed at reducing the time offenders spend in prison and jail. It would require “presumptive parole” for inmates who have served their minimum sentence unless there were “substantial and compelling” reasons to deny parole. The language of the package is still being negotiated, according to CAPPS, but the introduction is a very hopeful step.

Michigan’s parole system has long been criticized for allowing parole board members to pile on additional punishment beyond the judges’ sentences rather than look at the inmate’s prison record.

“The economic health of many low-income neighborhoods, which face disproportionately high incarceration rates, could particularly improve if states reordered their spending in such a way. States could use the freed-up funds in a number of ways, such as expanding access to high-quality preschool, reducing class sizes in high-poverty schools, and revising state funding formulas to invest more in high-poverty neighborhoods,’’ the Center’s report suggests.

Michigan spends $1.2 billion more on corrections in 2013 than it did in 1986, the report found. That’s a lot of money that could be better invested in our students and in our future.

— Judy Putnam

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