Michigan Prisons Focus on Released Inmates

April 8, 2010 - 10:59am

Mark Hornbeck / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing -- Michigan's prison system has undergone a culture change from locking up law breakers for as long as possible to being more selective about whom to put behind bars, state Corrections Director Patricia Caruso told officials at a prisoner re-entry conference Tuesday.

The state closed 10 prisons last year and has curbed its inmate population from 51,500 to 45,000 since 2007, Caruso said. The number of women prisoners has been cut by 30 percent. That reverses a build-up trend that lasted a couple of decades.

"We went from a small prison system, a medium system, to a huge prison system because we could," Caruso said. She added there was "no push-back" because communities wanted the jobs that prisons provided and others "didn't have the political will to stop us."

The two-day conference at the Lansing Center is bringing together government, businesses, social services and faith-based groups that deal with integrating released felons back into society. The Corrections Department has only recently figured out it is part of the state's job to partner with these groups to make prisoner re-entry successful, Caruso said. The department has stepped up a program intended to keep released felons from committing new crimes.

"If we are not focused on get out and stay out, what are we here for?" she asked.

Michigan has the eighth-largest prison system in the nation and employs 15,746, a little less than one-third of all state government employees, Caruso said.

"It would be a good trade-off if we had the lowest crime rate in the country. We don't have that. Not even close," she said.

The state budget crisis has helped to bring about the release of thousands of inmates who have served their minimum sentences. Some lawmakers and law enforcement officials have criticized the policy, calling it "hug a thug" and saying it endangers public safety.

Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, has said the state needs to curtail what it spends per inmate rather than releasing felons and closing prisons.

But, it's not just about the money. Reducing the inmate head count is the right thing to do, Caruso said. Public safety is endangered when inmates are kept in lockups too long and then released without being given the tools to move back into communities, she said.

"There are some people who need to stay in prison for the rest of their lives; I know that. But there are not 50,000 or 45,000 of them. I know that for sure," she said, adding that 95 percent of inmates eventually will be released.

"We have a $2 billion budget in the Department of Corrections," the state prison chief said. "You'll never hear me say that's not enough money."

Inmate population, crime rates and prisoner intake are all down, she said, indicating the state is pursuing the proper course. "But this is an election year," Caruso said, suggesting that candidates running on law-and-order promises threaten to return to the old days.

mhornbeck@detnews.com (313) 222-2470

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