By: Sophie Ordway
In this time of mass incarceration and renewed focus on the carceral state, the Michigan prison system is in desperate need of profound transformation. Popular prison reform proposals address problems that contribute to mass incarceration, such as long sentences, prosecutorial discretion, the cash-bail system, and barriers to reentry and employment. While reforms that work towards the long-term goal of a decarcerated state are worth supporting, most tend to focus on life for people involved in the justice system either pre- or post-incarceration, not during their imprisonment. If we want to drastically reduce the prison population, we should also implement policy that directly impacts how prisons function. Reestablishing a sentencing credit system (SCS), which a Michigan grassroots campaign is currently working toward, is one such policy that would have a profound influence on the number of people in Michigan prisons.
Sentencing credit systems vary from state to state. They are often referred to as “good time” (GT), or sometimes “earned time” policies whereby currently incarcerated individuals can reduce their sentences for exhibiting “good behavior” or participating in designated programs, including educational and vocational training programs. Research shows that states with some form of SCS are more likely to reduce recidivism along with prison population and costs. Unfortunately, Michigan is one of a handful of states that departs from the federal system and does not use an SCS.
GT was removed from Michigan’s prisons in 1978 due to an overwhelming ballot initiative vote. The initiative was supported by GT critics who argued that releasing individuals from prison early was deceitful to the public and thus undermined public trust. The maximum amount of GT a person was able to receive prior to 1978 was 15 days per month. After this reform, with people in prison no longer able to reduce their sentences, the prison population began to rise, leading to overcrowding. Budget increases and overcrowding led to temporary, piecemeal reform in the 1980s, but these steps were largely undone with the introduction of Truth-in-sentencing laws between 1998 and 2000, which mandates that every person in Michigan serves every day of their minimum sentence.
A bill including the reinstatement of GT in Michigan was proposed in 2018 but it did not move past committee. Reinstating GT is strongly opposed by law enforcement and Michigan prosecutors. Yet, a recent study shows 80 percent of Michigan survivors of crime support reducing a person’s sentence for participating in rehabilitative, therapeutic, and educational programs and 73 percent believe investing in such programs is more effective at preventing future crime than punishment through incarceration.
Supporters of a new sentencing credit policy have not been deterred. The Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act Coalition is organizing signature-gathering to get a new SCS on the November 2020 ballot. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, obtaining enough signatures has been difficult. However, a federal judge recently ruled that it is unconstitutional for the state of Michigan to maintain the same requirements for a ballot initiative in light of the recent social distancing executive orders. Campaign organizers are now waiting to see how the state will respond, hoping they will either lower the minimum requirement, extend the deadline, or a combination of both. Meanwhile, people across the state of Michigan are continuing to collect signatures. Regardless of whether it is successful in November, the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act deserves public and political support.
Longer sentences—which have increased 60 percent across Michigan since 2005—do not harm equally across race and class. It is well documented that the prison industrial complex disproportionately targets and impacts people of color, particularly Black folks, and low-income people. Evidence points to education and positive social supports, not punishment, as deterrents to crime. The director of the Michigan Department Of Corrections claims to focus on learning opportunities for incarcerated people, using the Vocational Villages as evidence of the department moving in that direction. But these programs only provide opportunities for a tiny fraction of imprisoned people in Michigan. Based on behavior and participation in programs, anyone could be eligible to reduce their sentence through an SCS. This would not only save thousands of taxpayer dollars, but more importantly, an SCS will help to shift the culture inside prison management from one of punishment and isolation to one of support and reconstruction, while simultaneously working towards decarceration.
Alternatives to incarceration are the first and most obvious response to mass imprisonment. Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, the utilization of the criminal justice system as a response to mental health crises, and the myriad other systemically racist and classist ways people are funneled into incarceration are all necessary to end mass imprisonment. There is a spotlight on the need for a paradigm shift within our society now more than ever, due to the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black and Brown people that have been victims of policing and state violence for far too long. At the same time, we cannot afford to abandon the people inside prisons while we are working on reshaping societal culture. If we want to cut the prison population, we need to think about ways to positively impact and support people inside the prisons themselves.
Implementing a sentencing credit system could do just that. Several analyses of public safety and cost-benefits resulting from different credit systems show that they not only save states millions of dollars by reducing prison populations (for example, New York saved $369 million over a nine-year period by allowing 24,000 people to reduce their sentences by six months), they also reduce recidivism rates. Despite the opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement, there are legislators who are already championing the implementation of this more just policy. What we need now is public education, support, and action.
Photo of Rally at Chowchilla Valley State Prison for Women by Daniel Arauz
Sophie Ordway is an M.A. Student at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work. Sophie’s graduate studies focuses on macro-level social work practice in social policy and evaluation. Sophie works as a Research Assistant for the Documenting Criminalization and Confinement Project through the UM Humanities Collaboratory on the Afterlives of Conviction Team. She also spends time volunteering on local and state projects that attempt to change policies and raise awareness about the harm of the carceral state. Sophie plans to use her MSW to evaluate and contribute to policies and programs, utilizing a social justice lens, that work towards decarceration.