Separating Fact from Myth About the “Broken” Criminal Justice and Prison System


Recently President Obama spoke to the NAACP about what he and others have taken to calling our “broken” criminal justice system.  It’s a popular notion, championed by presidential candidates on both sides as well as such diverse folks as the Americans for Tax Reform and the Koch brothers on the right and the ACLU, the NAACP and the Center for American Progress on the left.

The problem is, as with much proposed legislation, that it is a solution in search of a problem.  At least that is true in the state of Michigan.  Though it is expensive to house prisoners ($35,149 per inmate per year in Michigan), the facts are that in Michigan, we have the right people in prison.

If this is truly the case, early release is not the answer.  Before we can argue about the solution, we need to have the facts in order to make a well-informed decision.  Following are some myths that have appeared repeatedly in speeches, articles and editorials, followed by the facts according to Michigan Prisoners, Violent Crime and Public Safety: A Prosecutor’s Report, a compilation published by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.


Myth #1 – The “War on Drugs” is out of control, resulting in the overcrowding of our prisons

Fact – in Michigan, only 8% of prison inmates are in for drug offenses.  The national average is 17%.  Of Michigan’s 43,704 inmates in 2013, only 11 were there because of possession of marijuana.

Myth #2 – Judges usually send convicted felons to prison

Fact – Only 10% of those who commit felonies are initially sentenced to prison.  Adding in probation and parole violations increases the number to 21.6% of convicted felons who end up in prison.  The national average is 40%.

Myth #3 – Early release of inmates does not hurt anyone

Fact – The vast majority (over 70%) of Michigan’s prisoners committed violent or assaultive crimes.  The early release of these individuals could seriously negatively impact public safety in Michigan.

Myth #4 – Michigan has too many law enforcement officers

Fact – While Michigan has the highest violent crime rate in the Midwest, including four cities that have previously been named in the top 10 most violent in the country (Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac, Detroit), we also have the lowest percentage of law enforcement personnel to residents.

Myth #5 – Mandatory minimum sentences lead to unfairly lengthy sentences

Fact – In Michigan, we have very few mandatory minimum sentences, all for very serious crimes.

First degree murder – mandatory life sentence

Conviction of a serious felony, while having three prior felony convictions, including a violent offense – mandatory 25 year minimum

Criminal sexual conduct penetration with a child under 13 – mandatory 25 year minimum

Criminal sexual conduct (after a prior CSC conviction) – mandatory 5 year minimum

Commission of a felony with a firearm – mandatory 2 years in prison

Myth #6 – Convicted felons are less likely to re-offend if given probation rather than prison

Fact – From 2008 to 2011, the re-arrest rates for parolees (following prison sentences) declined by 20% while the re-arrest rates for probationers remained unchanged.  Approximately half of the inmates in Michigan prisons were sentenced there for violation their probation or parole.  Part of the reason for this may be that the ratio of parolees to residents supervised was 10% lower than the national average while the ratio of probationers to residents supervised was 56% higher than the national average.

There is no question that corrections occupies a large piece of our state budget.  For Fiscal Year 2014, the $2 billion spent on corrects was less than 4% of the state’s overall budget but approximately 20% of the state’s general fund budget.

The increase in costs of caring for prisoners has largely been driven by health care costs for inmates.  In 2011, Michigan spent $7,485 per inmate on health care, the most in the Midwest.  Since that time, however, the cost has dropped to approximately $6,450 in 2014, saving approximately $45 million per year.

The bottom line is that it appears that in Michigan, prisons are used to separate our violent and repeat criminals for the protection of society, the purpose for which they are intended.

About Allen Telgenhof

Allen Telgenhof is the Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney; beginning his 14th year of coaching high school baseball, now as varsity coach at Boyne Falls Public Schools. Graduated from Clio High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Father of four great children, ages 27, 25, 20 and 19.
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