$2 billion is too much for Michigan to spend on prisons, state must find way to cut spending

Guest Editorial
Nathan Bootz, the Ithaca schools superintendent, made a suggestion recently that got a lot of attention: He asked, facetiously, in a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, that the state of Michigan make his school a prison.

“We need to treat our students like they are prisoners, with equal funding,” he wrote. “Please give my students three meals a day. Please give my children access to free health care. Please provide my school district Internet access and computers. Please put books in my library. Please give my students a weight room so we can be big and strong. We provide all of these things to prisoners because they have constitutional rights. What about the rights of youth, our future?!”

Bootz uses sarcasm to make his point about the disparity in how much is paid for prisoners compared to how much we spend on students. And, while this particular analogy doesn’t hold up under careful scrutiny, it sure makes people stop and think about our spending priorities in Michigan.

Whether or not Bootz intended to heighten public attention on the prison system, he had this part right: The cost incurred in this state to run its Department of Corrections is high — too high.

And, despite reducing staff, closing prison facilities and an early release policy started several years ago, corrections department expenses have remained high. That’s in spite of the fact that the Michigan prison population has dropped from almost 52,000 in 2007 to about 44,000 today.

The 2012 general fund budget that lawmakers passed last month in Lansing allots just under $2 billion for corrections — not much of a change from the $2 billion spent last year, and the year before. And that amount for corrections represents about a quarter of the state general fund.

It’s incredible that Michigan is spending a quarter of its general fund on the state prison system.

It’s incredible that we’re spending more money on prisons than we are on higher education.

Just as the weight of wages and benefits has burdened local police and fire departments and public schools, so, too, have personnel costs and health care costs for employees and prisoners grown more burdensome on the state prison system. Those costs now consume 75 percent of the Department of Corrections budget.

New hires in the corrections department pay 20 percent of their health-care costs, and their
pensions are less expensive than the benefit plans that are on the books for corrections department veterans. But the impact of these reforms has not resulted in a significant reduction in the budget.

It’s interesting to note that corrections employees now represent nearly one in three state workers.

For substantive change in personnel costs, unions representing longtime corrections workers would have to agree to the kinds of cuts in pay and benefits that were imposed on the private sector years ago. Can that happen?

And can taxpayers and their elected officials consider the return on their investment when they think about nearly $2 billion being spent on the state prison system?

Can we come up with more cost-effective ways to accomplish the same goals?

Whether or not these changes can happen, it is imperative that we reinvent our corrections system based on what taxpayers in Michigan can truly afford.

Fundamentally, we’re paying top dollar among the Great Lakes states to lock up the largest prison population in the region — and it is crippling our state.