Whatever your politics, this much is clear: Nobody ever lost votes by vowing to be tougher on crime.
Seven years ago, the state Department of Corrections launched the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, a program designed to save the state money by keeping cons from returning to the slam. Basically, it helped parolees find housing, transportation and jobs, and kept better track of them than before.
This wasn't launched out of any spirit of compassion for criminals, but because the state was drowning in the costs of corrections. The prison population, which had been 13,000 in 1982, had exploded to 51,000 a quarter-century later.
The math was simple. Keeping a prisoner behind bars costs $34,000 a year; supervising one parolee costs less than a tenth as much. Soon, the state began shedding inmates and saving money.
Two months ago, Bloomberg Businessweek calculated that the program had saved the state $315 million. The prison population had declined dramatically as well, to about 43,000, though some of that is likely due to other factors.
But last week, a state audit severely rapped the re-entry program, saying it wasn't as effective as many thought, was poorly monitored and suffered from sloppy record-keeping.
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper was quick to pounce, telling the Detroit News, "This shows what we have been screaming about for three years," and claiming "the state has been more interested in cutting its budget than in the public safety."
Her reaction wasn't surprising. Ms. Cooper, a former judge and a Democrat, is expected to face a tough re-election battle this November against former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.
Last November, Oakland County residents were horrified when an elderly woman was brutally slain in her home in the leafy suburb of Royal Oak. Two paroled convicts who had failed to report to their parole officers have been arrested and charged in the case.
The Department of Corrections couldn't say whether the pair, Tonia Watson and Alan Craig Wood, were released under the re-entry initiative, but the program seemed ripe for scapegoat status.
However, if that happens, and the program is cut back or canceled, it might prove immensely costly. The percentage of Michigan parolees who end up back in the slam within three years has fallen dramatically, and is now far below the national average.
But apart from the re-entry initiative, some experts say the state could safely release thousands of other inmates — if legislators and policymakers were willing to make a few sensible decisions.
Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack has been studying the state's prisons and prison population for years. He thinks much of the unwanted boom in the inmate population is directly related to a series of disastrous decisions, starting in the 1970s, to close most state mental hospitals.
"Unfortunately, today, the most frequently used institution for those with mental illness is our prison and jail system," Mack has said repeatedly. He thinks we could dramatically reduce our prison population, and save millions every year, by simply agreeing to treat mental illness by any means necessary.
"Michigan's Mental Health Code is stuck in the past," the judge told me. He thinks the laws should be changed to allow intervention and involuntary treatment when called for. In a guest column for the Center for Michigan two years ago, he wrote "For any other illness, the court can authorize treatment when someone loses the ability to make an informed decision about his or her illness."
But though the judge has repeatedly urged lawmakers to do something, there's been little legislative interest in his proposal.
On a more modest scale, Carol Jacobsen has another way to reduce costs: Though her "day job" is that of a professor of art at the University of Michigan, she is also the guiding spirit behind the Michigan Women's Justice and Clemency Project. She claims that there are hundreds of women in Michigan's prisons who are no threat to anyone, and in many cases were unjustly sentenced because they were involved with men who committed heinous crimes.
Former Gov. William Milliken took up her cause, and argued repeatedly with his successor, Jennifer Granholm, on behalf of clemency for these women, many of whom are now elderly or infirm. But though a few women were released, his efforts were mostly ignored. Meanwhile, Michigan continues to spend more on prisons than higher education, when everyone agrees the state desperately needs fewer prisoners and more residents with college degrees.
Someone once said society needed to decide whether it could afford to lock up those it was mad at, or just those we are legitimately afraid of. What seems bizarre is that given Michigan's financial situation, its leaders seem unwilling to make the rational choice.
Footnote on the Ambassador Bridge: Since last week's column on the political contributions of the Moroun family, a number of readers have asked versions of the same question: "How did one man come to own a bridge that is a major border crossing and vital trade artery between Michigan and Canada?"
The answer: He bought it. The Ambassador Bridge has been in private hands since it was originally built in 1929. Fifty years later, the descendants of the original owners sold it to Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, after he managed to outbid a rival.
Who lost the bidding war for the bridge?
Believe it or not "¦ Warren Buffett.