I left the corrections crisis forum yesterday wondering if Michigan had found its new economic niche to replace its failing auto manufacturing business. What I already knew was reinforced that our state has developed its own system of gulags resembling the prison system in the old Soviet Union.
The state's prison system has become an economic force to be reckoned with and a major employer in the state. However, resources for the corrections system is sucking away needed state resources for other necessary functions of state government.
The Church in Society Committees of the Southeast Michigan and North/West Lower Michigan Synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) explored this topic yesterday at its Crisis in Corrections forum aimed at an ecumenical audience.
Here are some random notes from the forum:
- The state of Michigan has a $9 billion general fund budget and $2 billion of that goes for its prison system. That compares to the $3 billion for the Michigan Department of Community health which administers the state's mental health and Medicaid program and $1.2 billion for its social services programs.
- Thought provoking quote from Gov. Jennifer Granholm's deputy legal counsel Brandon Hofmeister on rough criteria for deciding who we should incarcerate: "We need to figure out who we are afraid of and who we are mad at." His point is that people who we are afraid of should be locked up and not the ones that we are just mad at.
- To reduce the state's prison population, Hofmeister said that his boss is working on giving the governor increased power of commutation for medically-fragile inmates, foreign nationals and non-assaultive older prisoners. They are also working on reducing the thresholds for drug possession and on reform of sentencing guidelines where some felonies will be changed to misdemeanors.
- Barbara Levine, the executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending pointed to a fact sheet she passed out on what a $20 million savings in the prison system could mean. It was part of a comprehensive package of information available on their website: www.capps-mi.org.
- The state of Michigan has been promoting a new program to help inmates reenter the non-prison world. It's called the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI).There seemed to be a real disconnect between spokesman for the program, former state representative Carl Williams and what was happening in local areas represented by forum participants. Frustration surfaced with those trying to understand it and with Williams who was trying to explain it.
- Christine Curtis, a community corrections expert with the Michigan Department of Corrections, confused the audience in trying to explain that the new program is not a program but a process. What seemed like a promising program got lost in a disconnect trying to explain it.
At the end of the day, everybody was in agreement that Michigan has to act to readjust its correction system to fiscal and social realities. Next step for the group.
The same groups are sponsoring a Working for Justice II day in Lansing to meet with state officials, state legislators and other advocates.