Dan Heyns lands on Lansing hot seat

Of every $4 that state government spends in its general budget, nearly $1 pays to house a prison inmate. Today, more than 43,000 adults are locked away at the public’s expense.

Dan Heyns no doubt knew this when he took the job as director of the state Department of Corrections on June 1. Now, the former Jackson County sheriff is learning just how thorny his job will be.

Little more than a week ago, Heyns started making the rounds with state media to discuss his new position. Immediately, it was clear he is bringing ideas to the table — and even tempering some past views:

• Heyns said he is open to bringing back “good time,” the practice of shortening prison sentences as a reward for good behavior behind bars. Jackson County offers such a system in its jail, as do other states, but it has not been used in Michigan’s prisons since the late 1990s.

“We’re getting into a hot-button issue, so let me be as diplomatic as possible,” Heyns told The Detroit Free Press. “I know the prosecutors are going to fry at the thought, but I think not to put it (good time) on the table would be crazy.”

• He was critical of plans to privatize food service, not because of the jobs that could be eliminated, but due to security concerns.

• Heyns offered some praise for the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative. As sheriff, he was a skeptic of the program, which helps parolees return to society. As corrections chief, he noted its value.

Trade in the sheriff’s uniform for the suit and tie of the appointed bureaucrat, and the viewpoints are bound to shift.

There’s bound to be some spin control, too. “I don’t think it was an attempt to get the topic out there for discussion,” a spokesman for the corrections department told Gongwer News Service in regard to Heyns’ comments on good time.

Regardless of his intent, it is encouraging to see Heyns float ideas that may rankle some of his friends in Michigan sheriff’s offices.

Corrections spending is a huge component of state spending, and it has soared in the last decade.

Comparisons with other states consistently reveal that Michigan locks up more residents per capita than its counterparts, and spends more to keep them in prison.

That might not be a failure of administration, but of imagination on the part of previous corrections directors, governors and lawmakers. It also cannot be allowed any longer.

In recent weeks alone, this newspaper has reported on policy changes in prison visitation and inmates’ outgoing phone calls. Both limit access to prisoners but cut money out of the state budget. Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget also assumes savings from prison employees’ pay and benefits.

Whichever side Heyns takes with each decision, he will be sure to hear criticism. Ultimately, he has two mandates: to protect the public and to be more careful with the public’s money.

Is that easy? Heyns answered that question with a statement in his Free Press interview:
“This job is full of these tough decisions — and none of them are good.”