Sacred cows block real prison reform

By Kyle Melinn

Don't claim to be a Korean War veteran if you're not. In Michigan, it's a three-year felony.

Sodomy is still a crime in Michigan, as is dueling, adultery and compelling a woman to marry.

Yet, trying to get Republicans to strip these arcane crimes from the books or to be a bit more sensible on sentencing for real crimes like low-level drug offenses, forgery and counterfeiting is like trying to make real reform in the state's prison system.

It’s next to impossible.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration told legislative Republicans 18 months ago that if it was serious about cutting corrections costs, there's really only one way to do it: Lower the state's comparably enormous prison population with realistic sentences that aren't driven by political opportunism.

But in order to do it, the Democrats have to give too, and that means lessening labor costs in the union-driven prison system.

Everybody wants to cut the Department of Corrections these days, but for different reasons.
During last May’s swank Detroit Chamber of Commerce shindig on Mackinac Island, Granholm pledged that if the business community got the Legislature to cut prison costs, she’d roll back the new Michigan Business Tax surcharge.

So off to work they went. The Detroit Chamber and other business groups spent the next several months tearing apart the state’s prison budget, trying to find a way to imprison our bad guys for less money.

If you haven’t heard yet, Michigan’s prison system is huge, like $2 billion huge. The biggest in the Midwest by far and by any measuring stick you want to use. We lock up more prisoners than any of our neighbors and at a higher cost.

During the economically flush 1990s, then-Gov. John Engler made prison construction a cottage industry. Get-tough-on-crime Republican lawmakers were more than happy to fill these new facilities by jacking up prison sentences and installing more mandatory minimums.

Ah, but public safety comes at a price. In the fear-driven culture in which we live, where any middle-class child abduction or spousal murder has the potential to make national headline news for weeks on end, no amount of money is too much to lock up the crooks.

Until, the piggybank is empty, that is.

And in Michigan, the state piggy bank has been collecting dust bunnies since 2001. We’ve shifted money here and there. Cut money to cities, townships, universities, and certain parts of state government. Taxes were raised in 2007, and the business community was ticked.

That returns us to the Detroit Chamber, which came back last October with $800 million in prison reform, more than enough to cover a business tax surcharge. Their plan was to cut sentences and cut labor costs.

The governor and the Legislature stared at each other. The stand-off began.

The Republican-led Senate is all about privatization and slashing the union-driven labor costs within the state’s prison system, but not giving up their "bad-guys-are-going-to-kill-you-in-your-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night” fear card.

The Democrats are OK letting out non-violent offenders as long as they’ve served their minimum sentences. They’re also fine with giving judges more sentencing discretion, but not if they have to throw their union buddies under the bus by cutting labor costs.

The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center was called in to help. It called in the Republicans, Democrats and DOC officials and went to work.

Last week, amid much bipartisan fanfare, the report was released. What did Republicans and Democrats come up with?


Not only did the Council only find $16 million in savings for next year (less than 1 percent of the entire DOC budget), but it suggested that the money saved go toward local police and DNA crime labs. So much for rolling back the business tax.

Faced with the charge of fixing state government, the Republicans and Democrats came back with a tin can and square tires.

Now the state has a $1.4 billion budget hole, the little sister to a $1.8 billion hole of two years ago that required major tax increases to fill.

Prison cuts must happen this year. The “Obama-bucks” won’t balance the state budget in the long term.

The sacred cows need to be led to the slaughterhouse. Republicans need to pitch the "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" mentality, but Democrats will need to give a little, too, even if it means less overtime or fewer union workers in prisons.

To not meet halfway can't be an option.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Email