Politics & Prejudices: The politics of prison reform 

Want to know one big reason why there really isn't any money for the roads, and you have to borrow a fortune to get an education, and services are getting worse and worse?

Two billion dollars a year is getting sucked up to run our vast, bloated, and terribly inefficient prison system.

Take a quick time-travelling trip back to 1973, when Michigan had about 9 million people, compared to probably a little less than 10 million today. Barely any difference.

Back then, we had less than 8,000 people behind bars in state prisons. The cost of corrections was less than 2 percent of the state budget. Nobody paid much attention to prisons.

Today, given the population growth, you might expect our prison population might be 9,000, or a little less.

If you nodded your head "yes," you'd be wrong by a few miles in the exercise yard. The most recent figures I've seen show a Michigan prison population of 43,704. And that's down from the all-time high of 51,554 people imprisoned in 2007.

That decrease is due in part to our aging population (old guys are less likely to commit violent crimes) and partly because of a belated realization that maximum sentences for penny-ante drug crimes do nothing more than impoverish the state.

However, our prisons are still bulging with people it makes no sense to keep there. Inmates cost state taxpayers, on average, $35,000 a year. But elderly inmates cost much more. According to a study by Ted Roelofs for Bridge Magazine, there are hundreds of prisoners in their 70s or 80s.

Ten elderly prisoners, some in wheelchairs and walkers, cost the state an average of more than $220,000 each in health care expenses in 2013. They are no longer any threat to anybody. Connecticut saves money by outsourcing such geriatric lifers to a state-run nursing home, meaning that Medicaid pays the cost of their medical care.

Michigan could do the same. But we don't.

State Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland) is as conservative as they come on most issues. But two years ago, he recognized how stupid our prison policy was. Intelligent prison policy, most experts say, begins by realizing we need to lock up only those we are afraid of, not those we are merely mad at.

Michigan has people behind bars who have been there so long we don't even remember why we're mad at them.

Possibly the worst example of injustice is Richard "White Boy Rick" Wershe, who has been in prison for nearly 30 years for being an alleged drug kingpin. In fact, he was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate a drug gang when he was 14.

When they didn't need him anymore, they abandoned him, and he then tried to make a living doing what they taught him to do. He was swiftly caught, tried, and convicted.

Former Detroit investigative TV reporter Vince Wade has been fighting for Wershe's freedom; a federal judge told me that keeping Wershe in prison is an enormous miscarriage of justice. But there he stays.

In addition, we had in 2013, five people in the state slammer for smashing parking meters for their coins, again according to Roelofs. Sixty-seven were behind bars for not paying child support, 11 for possession of marijuana, and more than 300 for having less than an ounce of stuff like heroin or cocaine.

Keeping them locked up costs us millions, every year. Those costs will only get bigger. Two years ago, Haveman was part of a major bipartisan effort to achieve prison reform.

But that was torpedoed by Michigan's wonderful attorney general, Bill Schuette, who wants to run for governor, and evidently thinks he needs to look Tough on Crime.

Last year, the Lansing-based Citizens' Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) released a comprehensive, thorough, and impressive blueprint for prison reform.

CAPPS argues that we could reduce the prison population by 10,000 inmates over the next few years without affecting public safety. This would save the state $250 million every year.

Nobody, however, wants to stand up to Schuette, the man who wasted millions fruitlessly trying to prevent two saint-like gay nurses from adopting the sick babies they raised. Instead, Schuette's ham-handed efforts may have helped speed making both same-sex adoption and marriage legal.

Now, there's a tiny but timid, effort in the legislature to do something sensible, though it's not really enough to call it prison "reform." Noting that there are at least 7,000 fewer inmates than there used to be, state Sen. John Proos (R-St. Joseph) wants to close two of our old prisons.

He would then use the money saved — about $15 million— to make badly needed repairs and upgrades to other prison buildings. This should be a total no-brainer.

But it is bitterly opposed by the state Department of Corrections, which wants to keep all the prisons open in case, they say, the population starts rising again. Bureaucrats never, of course, welcome any shrinking of their empire.

I wouldn't be surprised if Corrections Director Heidi Washington argued for keeping all 35 of her prisons open if Michigan was down to 35 inmates statewide.

We'll have to see how this one plays out. By the way, in case anyone has the idea that Proos, the chair of the relevant subcommittee dealing with prison budgets, is too sensible — think again. Hepatitis C is rampant in prisons, and Gov. Rick Snyder requested $17.3 million for a new drug that can actually cure some strains of the disease. Proos's committee, however, doesn't want to spend a penny.

All the proof you need about tea party racism

For years, we've endured the asinine charges of the "birthers" who claimed Barack Obama was really born in Kenya, and therefore couldn't possibly be a legitimate president.

After all, the U.S. Constitution says the president has to be a "natural born citizen," right? Never mind that it was established beyond doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii.

Never mind that he has a valid Hawaiian birth certificate; that the birth announcement was noted in the papers in August 1961, or that both his mother and father lived in Hawaii at the time — and there wasn't any easy way to get to Kenya.

Rationally proving that Obama was born in the United States was useless, because this had nothing to do with facts. This was merely psychological evidence for many racists for whom the idea of a black president was so unacceptable, they had to convince themselves he was not really qualified — which meant he couldn't "really" be president.

Want proof I'm right? This year, we have another leading candidate whose father, like Obama's, wasn't an American citizen.

What's more, he really wasn't born in this country, and didn't set foot in it until he was 4. His name is Ted Cruz.

Now, how many tea partiers or birthers do you see claiming that Ted is unqualified to be president? Precisely one.

That would be one Donald Trump, who has taken to calling Cruz "Rafael," which happens to be his real first name.

Trump also argues that Cruz is unqualified to be president because of his foreign birth. Most experts on the U.S. Constitution say that's nonsense, that Obama and Cruz would be eligible regardless, because their mothers were U.S. citizens.

Naturally, the Donald has a vested interest in trying to sow doubts about his rival's eligibility. But where are all the other birthers, now that they have someone who really wasn't born here? Silent as the tomb, for one very clear reason.

Rafael, aka Ted, happens to be white.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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