Michigan's Prisoner Glut

LIKE many states, Michigan has spent most of the 1980s struggling with a burgeoning inmate population, both in state prisons and local jails. By 1981, the state's prisons were nearing capacity, prompting the Legislature to give Gov. James Blanchard (D) emergency powers to release convicts who were within 90 days of completing their sentences whenever prison capacity exceeded 90 percent. Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Leo Lalonde says that, at the time, lawmakers thought the act would be triggered only once every two-to-four years. Instead, the prison population grew so fast that early releases occurred nine times in three years. Despite the 90-day requirement, some inmates were released two to three years early, Mr. Lalonde says.

In late 1984, the governor refused to release any more prisoners; he committed himself to a prison construction program advocated by the state's Republican Senate. By 1985 the Legislature approved a $900 million plan to build 28 state prisons between 1985 and 1991. Michigan's construction, paid for entirely with state funds, will boost prison capacity from 12,930 in 1985 to 32,000 by 1991. About $750 million has been spent so far.

Meanwhile, the prison population in the Great Lakes State has skyrocketed. As of May 3, Lalonde says, 26,573 men and women were in state prisons - 4,306 over capacity. Admissions to prisons have set Michigan records in each of the last three years. At the current rate, about 13,000 convicts will enter the state's penitentiaries in 1989. With average cost of incarceration at $20,000 a prisoner, the corrections department's operating budget has ballooned from $240 million in 1982 to a $668 million funding request for the next fiscal year, Lalonde says.

State prison overcrowding has two main sources, says Candace Avery, the governor's citizens' protection adviser. One clear cause is longer sentences, often related to drug abuse. Michigan is the toughest state in the union on drug offenders, Ms. Avery says. Conviction for possession, sale, or intent to sell controlled substances brings a maximum life sentence with no parole - the same penalty as first-degree murder.

The other cause of overcrowding, Avery says, is the intake from crowded local jails, a recent phenomenon. These short-term prisoners are not normal candidates for prison, she notes. Most are serving three-month to two-year sentences for theft, burglary, or other property offenses. Judges send them to state prisons only after finding local jails are filled.

In addition to building more prisons, the state is trying to reduce the number of inmates entering them in the first place. Last December, Governor Blanchard signed a bill making Michigan the 14th state to enact a ``community corrections'' program, Avery says. The program is aimed at diverting first-time, nonviolent property offenders from jails into alternative punishment. Lalonde also points to the ``tether'' program, in which convicted felons who have served most of their sentences and have proved their trustworthiness are allowed to return to the community wearing an electronic bracelet that allows their location to be tracked. Michigan's tether program is the largest in the country, including more than 1,200 felons, he says.

State Sen. Nick Smith (R) of Jackson, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, hopes to offer more funding and alternative programs to localities in next year's budget. The governor is pushing ``state-local partnerships'' program to encourage localities to build jails with help from state grants. He believes the state's approach will ensure adequate prison capacity: ``Personally, I'm expecting a levelling off, because what we see statistically is that 15 to 20 percent of criminals commit 75 to 80 percent of the crimes.'' Corrections officials issue their predictions in about two weeks.

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