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Michigan tops country in cutting crime by ex-prisoners

By Silu Guo
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan is the nation’s leader in reducing the rate of new crime by ex-offenders, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s National Reentry Resource Center.

The center’s 2012 policy brief highlights states that show significant declines in their three-year recidivism rates. It is based on data that tracks individuals released from prison between 2005 and 2007.

Michigan’s rate dropped by 18 percent.

The Kansas rate fell by 15 percent, while Texas and Ohio reported reductions of 11 percent.

Russ Marlan, public information officer at the Department of Corrections, said the state releases about 9,000 prisoners each year.

“We track them for three years — from 2007 through 2010 — to collect data for recidivism. According to the latest number, our recidivism rate is 31 percent,” Marlan said. “The national average rate is 40 percent.”

He said part of the reason to track ex-inmates is because the department has a statewide reentry program.

“We started the program in 2005 and spent $12 million on it at the time,” Marlan said. “In 2012 the investment is $25 million.”

Marlan said the program provides resources to assist criminals before they get out of prison. “We aim at giving those folks a better chance.”

He says the department has a system to evaluate each prisoner. “What is their risk, what are their needs?

“It is important to provide them management in prison, but we all know they will have a critical time when they return to society,” Marlan said.

After they get back into society, the reentry program provides help in housing, transportation and possible employment opportunities, according to Marlan.

Harry Wilson, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency said, “It is important to change prisoners’ behavior and attitude before they get back to the free world. Most prisoners are self-centered.

“Too many times, people feel if one was a prisoner, they should lock them up without giving them the key,” Wilson said. “But the truth is, when you look at people who had trouble with alcohol, they are the best person to teach peers not to drink.

“They can turn themselves around in changing other people, but they have to be given their chance,” he said.

Wilson advocated more collaboration among government agencies, communities and nonprofit groups.

“As a nonprofit organization, we go into prisons around the state and help people figure out if they need benefits,” Wilson said. “We’ve seen one quarter of all the prisoners.”

Among the 42,000 prisoners, 11,000 will have problems going back to the community, according to Wilson, who says he doesn’t see a lot of things the government can do at this point. “I think the power should come from communities.”

He said at the community level, “we have to become a complete system, we have to think differently.” Wilson added that the government has a role to play while communities need to step up.

“There are 18 different communities that have their own reentry sites and all of them do a good job,” Wilson said. “Midland County has had a reentry program for the last couple of years. Wayne County does a good job in its juvenile reentry program.”

Eric Lambert, a criminal justice professor at Wayne State University, said there are two ways to define recidivism: One is ex-prisoners committing new crime, and the other is technical violations of the rule of probation and parole.

“For technical violations, 40 percent to 50 percent of these people didn’t do a new crime again,” Lambert said, so it’s unfair to count that as recidivism.

He said criminals are classified as recidivists for moving without telling their parole officers, not showing up on time or buying alcohol.

“Supervisor and support services are needed for technical violators,” Lambert said.

He added sending those people back to prison doesn’t help the community.

“Michigan decided to keep them in the community and watch them more closely,” Lambert said.

He said Michigan is neither automatically returning all violations to prison nor leaving them free without supervision.

He also said by reducing the recidivism rate the state can prevent crimes and save money for prevention programs.

“We are kind of a self-funding system,” said Marlan from the Department of Corrections. “It is hard for the department to go to the Legislature and say we need $20 to $30 million for prison reentry programs.”

“Our whole philosophy is that because of the reduction of recidivism, we closed a number of prisons to save money,” he said.

The prison population obviously has dropped from 22,000 to 18,000 over the last four years, according to Marlan. “We closed 21 facilities and saved more than $100 million.”

Marlan said the department is continuing to monitor the results of the current policy.

“We learn from other states and get information on what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “We look to national experts’ studies and research to improve.”

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