Real prison reform
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Taxpayers cannot afford to continue to foot the bill for the state's extra-large inmate population, especially those convicted of non-violent crimes.
People with mental illnesses are an obscenely large portion of the prison population. Money for mental health courts should be restored to the budget. Without appropriate attention to legitimate mental health needs, the state's prisons will continue to be a revolving door for these individuals.
The Department of Corrections budget has grown to more than $2 billion and is stealing resources from other priorities. Lawmakers have to get serious about prison reform, from addressing sentencing guidelines to alternative programs like mental health courts. The state has an inmate population of about 51,000 -- one in four have a history of mental illness.
The state incarcerates 47 percent more prisoners on average than surrounding Great Lakes states, primarily because of longer sentences. It spends $31,000 annually per prisoner.
Loading up prisons with people suffering from mental illness makes no sense. Mental health courts offer defendants an opportunity to participate in community-based treatment programs instead of prison. By diverting offenders for treatment, lawmakers can make strides in reducing the likelihood those with mental illness will be repeat offenders, and save taxpayers dollars. State prisons have become to a certain extent mental health-care providers, since Michigan closed its mental health hospitals in the 1990s. Savings from mental health courts could be seen in prisonhousing and medical costs.
Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, former Eaton County Sheriff and longtime supporter of the idea, said the programs could be as successful as the state's drug courts. There are about 120 mental health courts around the country but just a handful around the state, including the Eighth Circuit Court's for Ionia and Montcalm counties, the closest to Grand Rapids.
Gov. Granholm's proposed budget included $3.4 million to pilot mental health courts --$2.3 million for the Department of Community Health and $1.1 million for the judiciary but both were removed by the Senate.
The funding could have helped legislation by Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, which she introduced a year ago. It languished in committee. The legislation would allow judges to direct people with mental illness to treatment rather than jail or prison, staying the criminal case up to a year. A hearing would be held and all relevant information would be considered, including the nature and seriousness of the crime committed, their prior criminal and mental health record and likelihood of a benefit from mental health services. The defendant would have to agree to participate.
Michigan lawmakers need to rethink this misappropriation of "law & order" and end having mentally ill offenders add to the cost of the prison system. Taxpayers deserve a reprieve.