Getting the 2017 MDOC Budget Right is Important – Short vs. Long-Term Success

Yesterday, I wrote about some possible problems I see with some of the set-asides in SB 0144 (The Senate version of the MDOC budget). But, you might be wondering why you should care?

There are many other reasons to care (I might write more about this lately) but let’s focus on the economic case today.

Per-Prisoner Costs

Senator Proos (the main author of the legislation) suggested across-the-board cuts in the MDOC budget primarily because he is disturbed that per-prisoner costs have risen significantly at a time when the prison population has been in decline.

Now, part of this is because per-prisoner costs will increase relative to the amount of empty beds in a prison (you still have to pay most of the operating costs of the prison but with less prisoners). Once you are able to reduce the prison population enough to close facilities the cost will decline naturally.

But, it is important to note that part of the problem is that Michigan is spending WAY too little on it’s prisoners now. I know this might sound counterintuitive but the best way to reduce costs is to parole prisoners who don’t return and this requires meaningful programming.

Only recently has Michigan started to commit to innovative and impactful programming designed to reduce recidivism and increase the possibility of what Governor Snyder often calls “offender success.” Unfortunately, most of those new programs were pilot programs, were not budgeted for the vast majority of prisoners, and several categories of prisoners are often prevented from participating (often with no good reasons – why, for instance, can’t sex offenders be involved in the dog training programs?).

If you spend more per-prisoner because you are installing innovative and successful programming, you will find you have more prisoners paroled and less prisoners returning. The short-term spending will often have massive long-term economic benefits.

Also, and this cuts to the heart of my post yesterday, why would you want to spend more money on a “future facility” if you are trying to reduce the per-prisoner cost to the State?

The short-term vs. long-term budgeting shuffle

Another reason for more per-prisoner expenditure is that parole often depends on a different kind of programming – the kind that teaches prisoners critical skills to cope with anger, or with an unhealthy relationship to sex, or with addiction (which may seems costly in the short-term but saves us all huge money in the long run).

You might immediately think that you could care less about programming for prisoners but you should care. Parole required programming can make the difference between someone returning as a danger to society or as a reformed citizen and programming is really cost effective:

  • Typical in-prison programs take between 12-15 prisoners at a time while each group is run by one MDOC employee.
  • I would guess (this is an educated guess) about 80% of each program group graduates with a good report (most programs run around 6 months).
  • If a prisoner has graduated with a good report this almost always ensures a favorable parole board decision.
  • Keeping a prisoner in prison costs the State around 34k per year.

In other words, every time a 12 person group is completed  you have the potential to save the state $340,000 (assuming all group members are parole eligible in that calendar year). Obviously, you have to subtract a portion of that one employees salary from the $340,000 saved (but how much can a portion of that one employees salary be).

My larger point, by increasing the per-person spending short-term, you potentially decrease the overall cost to the MDOC by a large margin in the longer term.

But if there are budget cuts, as Senator Proos has recommended, where would you guess the MDOC will cut first? Will they cut core MDOC personnel (CO”s) or cut programming and support?

Here is what Andy Potter of the MCO union says about the cuts:

“The programs that our officers administer are there to ensure that when inmates are released that they are less likely to commit another offense,” Potter continued. “We urge Senator Proos to consider the real world effect of these cuts and come to the table with an attitude that the safety of our corrections officers, the inmates, and the people in our communities should come first.” 

In other words, programming would be the first casualty of any cuts. But don’t take the union’s word. MDOC Director Heidi Washington says:

“We need to be able to continue to run programs and invest in the things that are making a positive impact on our population.” According to Washington, the Senate’s proposed budget would not only cost people their jobs, it would cut necessary programs and support unnecessary ones. “We’re on the right track and we’d like the ability to continue to move this department forward through the creation and implementation of programs that work,” she said.

Let’s not eviscerate all the positive work on parole that Senator Proos did passing parole and probation legislation that reduces Michigan’s prison population because of short-term concerns about per-prisoner costs.

I don’t think we should sacrifice what are bound to be massive long-term savings for small short-term budgeting surplus.

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