Debating Michigan’s economic and budget woes, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is a leader of a faction that generally believes a tax increase is preferable to spending cuts. While it is tempting to think in stereotypes — that Republicans provide the counterweight to "tax and spenders" — the truth is more complicated. Thinking "outside the box" is critical to cutting the cost of government, because old thinking preserves old spending. Last week, Republicans got stuck in the box when they dug in their heels against a potentially genuine spending reform for state prisons proposed by the Democratic governor.

Thinking outside the box on prisons can require thinking "outside the bars" — sustaining public safety while locking up fewer people. Michigan needs such thinking. The Citizens Research Council of Michigan reports an annual cost per inmate of $30,000. Data from the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency shows the state’s incarceration rate at nearly 22 percent higher than the national average. Even more striking, the CRC estimates that Michigan’s incarceration rate is 40 percent higher than the average of other Great Lakes states, costing taxpayers an additional $500 million per year.

Could Michigan still deter violence while locking up fewer prisoners? As the CRC report put it, "The relationship between the higher incarceration rate and crime rates is not apparent." At best, the relationship seems quite ambiguous. Illinois has an incarceration rate nearly 40 percent lower than Michigan, yet recent FBI crime reports show the rate of both violent crime and property crime in Illinois to be almost identical to Michigan. Michigan’s violent crime rate was 17.6 percent higher than the national average, but crimes against property — nonviolent crimes — were nearly 10 percent lower than the average.

What is not ambiguous is the need to cut state spending. To that end, Gov. Granholm’s Department of Corrections has recommended changes in sentencing for about 230 crimes. This would reduce the inmate population and net $92 million in savings next year. The critical component is reducing the time for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. At least 44 percent of the inmates taken in by the state in 2006 were for non-violent crimes. That’s 4,868 crooks in very costly cages — at taxpayer expense — usually because they are dishonest or careless, but not because they are violent predators. These reforms assume that nonviolent crooks should still pay for their crimes, but that it’s unwise to also make the taxpayer keep paying for their crimes. A spokesman for the DOC summed it up: "Do we want these people in prison because we’re mad at them or because we fear them?"

Unfortunately, many Republicans are not thinking outside the bars and have denounced the DOC recommendations. One of the reforms is a change in sentencing for those who manufacture and use fake IDs. State Attorney General Mike Cox argued against this by releasing a document with an ID photo of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, gratuitously conflating a massive act of violence with a crime commonly committed by those facilitating fraud or underage drinking.

Responses from GOP legislators also were discouraging. Despite incarceration rates that may be costing taxpayers as much as half a billion dollars too much each year, Republican State Rep. John Proos greeted news of the reform proposal by saying: "I’ve not seen that there is a case to be made for significant changes in our sentencing guidelines." State Sen. Alan Cropsey, the chairman of a committee that must approve the reforms if they are to be enacted, stated that he would allow no such thing to happen.

Senate Republicans have their own plan for prison budgets. They would privatize prison services such as medical care and transportation. As with the DOC’s sentencing recommendations, privatization could save a substantial amount of money without damaging public safety. Looking into the privatization of entire prisons in other states, the Mackinac Center has estimated that privatizing just a fraction of this state’s prisons could annually save $192 million.

This is just a fraction of the billions of dollars in sensible spending and outside-the-box thinking that the Mackinac Center has suggested as a way to trim the size of the state and negate the need for an economically punishing tax hike. Privatization can generate real budget savings, but no more so than cutting out extra costs like excessive incarceration. Taxpayers deserve real sentencing reform. Republicans should help the governor make it happen if they are serious about saving money.

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Kenneth M. Braun is a policy analyst specializing in fiscal and budgetary issues for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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