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Our $2 billion prison blues

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Even as auto jobs have been falling away faster than tiles off the space shuttle, there has been a booming growth profession in Michigan: convict. Here's an arresting fact for you: There are nearly four times as many people behind bars in Michigan prisons as there were in 1982.

Today's total prison census fluctuates, but is approaching 50,000. That means one out of every 200 Michigan residents is an involuntary guest of Governor Jenny, and that doesn't even include the thousands more in county jails or other local lockups.

Nor is their stay cheap. Earlier this month, I learned that the cost of keeping someone in one of our state prisons ($30,468 a year) is more than it would cost to send them to Harvard Law School.

We spend more, way more, on our prisons than do surrounding states, including Ohio and Illinois, which actually have more people.

We spend more, way more, on our prisons than we do on higher education in this state. That's the case — even though it's clear that if we have any hope for a brighter future, it lies in higher education.

Not only that, our prison system is a miserable howling failure.

Yes, it prevents Jack Kevorkian from appearing on 60 Minutes, and yes, it probably will now keep Macomb County's own Patrick Selepak from killing any other hapless civilians, assuming that the courts find him as guilty of triple homicide as the newspapers have.

Now if I weren't so sweet, I could be snotty and point out that these last three people were evidently killed because the prison system let Selepak out by mistake, but hey, that wouldn't be nice.

Besides, anyone can make a clerical error.

However, scary Pat is typical in one respect: The odds are overwhelming that a Michigan prisoner who has been released from state prison is a Michigan prisoner who soon will be on his way back again.

Last week I talked with Christopher Maxwell, who is both a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State and head of the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan.

I learned that nearly two-thirds of those released from our prisons are right back there within two years. Motel 6 should get such loyalty.

But sadly, this should come as no surprise. What else do you expect? Martha Stewart aside, most convicts are not high-rolling corporate types, but people with too little education, too few job skills, and not much experience with the old work ethic.

And even if they do want to work, consider: Somebody walking out of prison in Michigan today is being released into a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Even if there were jobs, how many employers are going to want to take a chance on an ex-convict?

Plus, for many convicts, prison, ghastly as it is, is the closest thing to home some have ever known. Some even commit crimes just to get back inside. To try to save money, the governor has closed some prisons since she took office. What good has that done?

Not much, my prison expert said. "It does put increasing amounts of pressure to put offenders on probation [as opposed to locking them up] and grant earlier and more paroles."

That doesn't save that much money, however, Maxwell added; it simply shuffles the costs from the prisons themselves to "maintaining the front end, probation, and the back end, parole."

The governor has had one good idea — using more technology to electronically supervise prisoners who are a minimum risk to the public. Lots of luck, Maxwell said; the prison guards union will fight that, tooth and nail. There is a glimmer of good news; the prison population is no longer growing all that fast. Unfortunately, prison expenses are likely to go on increasing. The average age of the prison population is rising, and as our old lifers age, they, like everyone else, have increased health care costs.

Currently, corrections is by far the largest item in our general fund budget, costing us close to $2 billion a year. If you think that sends a powerful message about our priorities and the state's future, you are dead right.

 

Speaking of the future: By the way, there is a new group trying to do something about getting Michigan out of reverse.

Last year, former suburban newspaper publisher Phil Power sold his empire to Gannett. God may someday forgive him for that. But he is now putting his time and energy into something that just might be the state's last best hope: a new nonprofit, nonpartisan thing called the Center for Michigan (thecenterformichigan.net), which he calls a "think and do tank." The ideology of the center is meant to be "powerfully angry common sense."

That means if the choice is between making it possible for kids to go to school as opposed to giving the rich another tax cut, the center's attitude is not a weak endorsement of schools, but "fund the schools so we can all have a future, you damned morons!"

That attitude is meant to apply equally, by the way, to positions that might make knee-jerk liberals uncomfortable, regardless of the racial or political correctness of the right answers.

Something like this has long been needed, and I have happily agreed to be an unpaid member of the center's steering committee. For years, we have been living with aggressive Republican politicians with bad ideas, and Democrats who have few ideas and less backbone.

The center is still in the process of figuring out its top priorities, but they are likely include pressuring the politicians to enact a rational state budget (one that stops weakening our universities, for example) and finding a better way to pay the state's bills.

That may not sound sexy, but the way things are going with the automotive industry, anything that might help lead to a better economic future looks better than your favorite star in spandex.

 

Call to the colors: After last week's column on our all-volunteer military, I heard from some middle-class parents of soldiers, who objected to my noting that many of the enlistees now were from minority groups or those who grew up economically disadvantaged. Their sons weren't.

That's nice to know — but as I said, poor teenagers are still far likelier to enlist these days than those from West Bloomfield — and the upper-class kids who do enlist usually do so partly to get their résumé punched by becoming an officer. Nor, by the way, was I dumping on the military.

Everyone who hasn't listened to too much John and Yoko knows that the United States needs a strong military establishment. War is immoral, but some wars are terribly necessary.

What I was worrying about was having a completely volunteer force that is anything but a snapshot of the population, and which is too often out of the sight and mind of the average man.

Nor is it any insult to those who serve their country and fight and die for it to be mortally offended — as I am — by a criminal president who sends those soldiers off to die in an unnecessary war.

Especially, perhaps when that president took the easy way out, and ducked service and even his National Guard obligations, in his time.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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