To Save Money, States Consider Releasing Prisoners

Putting prisoners back on the streets is never a popular political decision. But the hard choices are piling up for cash-strapped states like Michigan. To help close her state's $1.6 billion budget chasm, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is looking to release as many as 12,000 inmates. To do that, she has expanded the parole board from 10 to 15 members to evaluate nonviolent offenders who have already served their minimum sentences and to expedite commutations. "Public safety is at the center of what we are doing," says the governor's spokesperson, Liz Boyd.

Keeping prisoners in jail isn't cheap. Michigan spends an average of $32,491 per year to house, feed and otherwise take care of a single inmate. That's four and a half times more than the state spends to educate a child. With at least 46 states facing budget deficits for the remainder of this fiscal year or for fiscal 2010, governors around the country are being forced to make difficult choices. Kentucky, South Carolina and at least six other states have already considered or enacted similar release programs to cope with rising state deficits.

Whether other states will follow is unclear. But Granholm's idea is an attractive cost-cutting measure. By pushing out some of the eligible prisoners, Michigan believes it can close a handful of prisons and lay off as many as 1,000 correctional officers for a savings of $120 million for fiscal 2009–2010. Michigan Department of Corrections Director Patricia Caruso argues that—money aside—this is actually a possible bright spot in their state budget crisis, because it allows them to rethink policy. "If we choose to spend all of our resources locking people up, even knowing that there's no correlation between how long people stay and whether or not they'll re-offend, then we're not making good decisions, we're making emotional ones," she says.

Michigan, like other states across the country, has watched its inmate population grow because of years of tough-on-crime policies that have not necessarily resulted in a better justice system. Nearly half the prisoners that leave the Michigan system end up going back in. The number of people under state correctional control—meaning jail, prison, probation or parole—has also grown. According to a recent Pew Center on the States study, in 1982, one in 110 adults was under Michigan's correctional control. Today, it's around one in 27—higher than the national average of one in 31.

Most of the offenders (74 percent) are on parole or probation—a much cheaper alternative to incarceration. For every dollar Michigan spends on prison, it only spends 10 cents on probation and parole. For most states, the Pew study found that the average daily cost of supervising a probationer was $3.42 in fiscal 2008. The cost to supervise an incarcerated person was 20 times higher. Last year, according to the same study, "prison-related costs were also the largest-expanding segment of state budgets, and over the past two decades, its growth as a share of state expenditures has been second only to Medicaid."

But turning prisoners onto the streets isn't something any state is likely to take lightly. The Pew report recommends redirecting funds to increase the intensity and quality of supervision and other services directed at outgoing prisoners. Michigan is taking steps to bolster its Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative—a program designed to assist former prisoners with transitioning back into society. The recidivism rates among those that have gone through the program have dropped 26 percent—a hopeful sign.

Still, there are concerns about how much influence the governor's office could have on the new parole board. The recent hires were the direct result of an executive order Granholm signed in February, and she will be handling board appointments from now on. Craig Thiel, director of state affairs at the nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, says that answering to the governor could put additional pressures on board members and how they make decisions.

No matter how the parole process works, critics warn that hastily rushing the process could lead to the release of the wrong inmates. "Proceed with caution," says Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents correctional workers across the state. He points out that some past offenders in Michigan have been released only to cause havoc and end up in jail again. State residents remember the case of Matthew Macon, who was paroled in 2007 and killed two women—he bludgeoned one victim with a toilet-tank lid and stabbed the other to death with a knife. He was also a suspect in several other deaths.

While pledging to be extradiligent, Caruso says she'd like to avoid having the Michigan prison system defined by the actions of one parolee. "That's not something we want to see happen," she says. Given the tough times, it's not something they can afford to have happen either.