Problem No. 1: Police too often engage in profiling, harassment and violence with the people they’re supposed to protect and serve

Actions by police such as racial profiling, harassment, police violence and unlawful stop and frisk practices are leading to unnecessary incarcerations and turning Michigan into the Great Incarceration State.

The financial impact on our state is tremendous. According to a 2014 report by the Council of State Governments, Michigan spends one of every five dollars on corrections. It costs $5 million a day, or $2 billion a year, to run Michigan’s prison system, whose population stands at 44,000 and is projected to top 56,000 within five years.

But the cost to people and families is even greater, especially for people of color. Nearly two in five black adults say that police have unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused them. This fact, reported in a 2011 study by the American Psychological Association, noted that “for black American adults, perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities.” Many of these encounters with police also result in arrests, convictions and the disproportional incarceration of communities of color. Clearly, something must be done.

We need to cut off the flow of prisoners at the source through avoidance of civilian contact with improper and unlawful policing. Find out how here.


Problem No. 2: Michigan too often “locks ‘em up and throws away the key” when other methods would work better and cost less

For certain offenses, prison is the obvious, best option to protect the public. Currently, about two-thirds of the nearly 44,000 people imprisoned in Michigan are in for violent crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery.

But prison is not always the appropriate systemic response for the rest. Many of these offenders simply don’t belong in prison, where they cost on average $35,000 per day to house and feed, costing the state $5 million a day, or $2 billion a year.

We need to expand our use of mental health, drug and other specialty courts and programs that have proven to be both useful and helpful to efforts to limit the number of prisoners who don’t belong in prison. Find out more here. 


Problem No. 3: Rather than seek alternatives, prosecutors are prosecuting first and asking questions later

All too often, overworked prosecutors are moving ahead with prosecutions that end up filling our jails and prisons to capacity and beyond. The result is a state that imprisons far more of its citizens than surrounding states for much longer periods of time than the national average at a much greater cost. Violent offenders in Michigan served 7.6 years in 2009 compared to the national average of five years. Property crime offenders served 2.9 years – six months longer than the national average.

Adding to the problem is Michigan’s tendency to lock up nonviolent offenders. In 2013, the state paid $35,000 per person per year to imprison 67 people for failure to pay child support, 277 for passing bad checks and 515 for shoplifting, five for prostitution and five for breaking into parking meters for change.

We need to encourage prosecutors to consider more plea deals and other measures that steer offenders away from prison and toward proven alternative sentencing programs that help them return to being productive, contributing citizens. Learn more here. 


Problem No. 4: In Michigan, the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime

When it comes to justice in Michigan and across the nation, the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime – and minority populations are disproportionately impacted. The culprit? Extreme sentencing laws and mandatory minimum laws that strip judges of their ability to right-size punishment.

The Michigan Legislative Council’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission, created by the Legislature in 2014, is currently engaged in an effort to, among other things, collect, prepare, analyze, and disseminate information regarding state and local sentencing and proposed release policies and practices for felonies and the use of prisons and jails, as well as research the effectiveness of our state’s sentencing guidelines.

We need to support the work of this commission, and eliminate racial biases in the criminal justice system as a whole. Find out more here. 


Problem No. 5: Food, overcrowding and other issues plague Michigan jails and prisons

We can all agree: Jail and prison aren’t intended to be vacation homes. But some jails and prisons in the Great Lakes State are beyond the pale, with overcrowding issues at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility for women, and the state’s well-publicized trouble with prison food vendor Aramark among the most egregious recent examples.

Prisoners who are treated badly or live in substandard conditions inside Michigan’s jails and prisons suffer irreparable harm that makes successfully re-entering society much, much harder, creating a cycle of crime to punishment-to-release-to-reincarceration.

We need to break this cycle by eliminating inhumane conditions of confinement that violate human rights requirements and that are not conducive to rehabilitation. Learn more here. 


Problem No. 6: Michigan focuses too little attention and too few resources on preparing inmates to successfully re-enter society

On any given day, the United States locks up more than 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world per capita. More than 650,000 of those people are released from state and federal prisons every year. Within three years, more than two-thirds of them end up back behind bars again.

Why? In Michigan, part of the reason is a system that focuses far more on punishment than on rehabilitation and skill-building. All you have to do is follow the money: Michigan spends only $30 million of its $2 billion annual budget on education and training for prisoners. The result: Many prisoners end up right back in jail or prison because they didn’t have the tools they needed to succeed. This is bad for them and bad for Michigan, particularly when successful alternatives exist.

As a state, we need to invest more in programs like “Vocational Village” which is transforming lives at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. Learn more here. 


Problem No. 7: On-time parole is not a guarantee in Michigan

Michigan just can’t let go. Not only is the Great Lakes State’s incarceration rate 31 percent higher than its Midwest neighbors, felons here also serve an average 127 percent of their minimum sentences. No wonder, then, that one of every five tax dollars goes into the state’s criminal justice system.
A better way is tantalizingly close. A bill to create a common sense and more humane approach that guarantees a shot at “on-time” parole – also known as presumptive parole – for well-behaved, low-risk prison inmates is stuck in the state Senate after passing the House last fall with the support of Gov. Rick Snyder and a broad bipartisan coalition of advocacy groups including the ACLU of Michigan, all of whom recognize that it will unclog prisons, reunite families and lower costs.

As a state, we need the Michigan Senate to act on – rather than sit on – this bill. Learn more here.


Problem No. 8: Funding is being cut for programs that work

When Michigan launched the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI) in 2005, nearly half of the state’s inmates who were released boomeranged right back to prison within three years. Within two years of the program’s launch, however, the recidivism rate had dropped from over 43 percent to 31 percent, and the MPRI was being hailed nationwide as a model for how to finally break the pernicious cycle of reincarceration. “Michigan is the nation’s leader in reducing the rate of new crime by ex-offenders,” proclaimed the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center.

Then Gov. Rick Snyder cut funding for MPRI nearly in half, and now the innovative program is a shell of its former self. “The state cut the funding significantly for reasons beyond us,” said one former program director in Grand Rapids.

As a state, we spend too much money locking up people and not nearly enough on rehabilitation, and in the end we end up with more people in prison, more fractured families and a greater burden on taxpayers. The ACLU of Michigan strongly maintains that this kind of short-sighted, penny-wise, pound-foolish approach is exactly the wrong approach for Michigan. Learn more here. 


Problem No. 9: Systemic factors keep many inmates from successfully restarting their lives

It’s in everyone’s interests for people who have been incarcerated to successfully re-establish themselves in society, given that those who don’t tend to return to the criminal activities that led to their imprisonment in the first place, and once they’re reincarcerated they again contribute to the bloat and cost of the state’s prison system. And yet ironically, society tends to put up roadblock after roadblock to success for outgoing inmates, most notably when it comes to finding a job and a place to live.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The ACLU of Michigan asserts that we can take four common sense steps that will go a long way toward breaking the cycle of recidivism that undermines public safety and drives up costs. Learn more here.


Problem No. 10: Michigan locks up – rather than helps – too many people with substance abuse or mental health issues

Ever since the beginning of the failed “war on drugs,” Michigan has spent an increasing percentage of its riches adjudicating, jailing and imprisoning thousands of people with substance abuse or mental health issues who should be treated instead.

While imprisoned, some do in fact get the care they couldn’t afford on the outside, but the cost for many is a felony conviction that becomes a burden that lasts a lifetime, impacting everything from where they can work to where they can live.

A better, more enlightened approach is needed. Instead of the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality that pervades Michigan currently, the state should be focusing its precious resources on preventing people from entering the criminal justice in the first place – and once in it, on recovery rather than punishment. Learn more here.