Michigan lawmakers need to get serious about guns and prisons

There is, in fact, some good news out there; the state prison population, and the violent crime rate, have both been significantly dropping over the past few years.

But don't worry; the idiots in the Michigan legislature want to do something to reverse both trends.

The state house of misrepresentatives has passed a law allowing any legal firearm owner to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, or even any training. You might ask... why?

Except you aren't ever going to get any answer that makes sense from a true gun nut, other than that his firm and totally incorrect belief is that the Second Amendment entitles him to have a powerful killing weapon in his possession at all times.

In this case, there's another reason; your average good ol' boy doesn't like paying the $100 application fee for a concealed weapon permit, plus subsequent fees every few years to renew the license.

Never mind that you have to buy a license and pass a test to own a car, which wasn't designed to kill people.

Fortunately, this turkey of a law hasn't, as I'm writing this, yet passed the state senate; if we are lucky, their schedule will be so crowded with vacation days they won't be able to get to it before they take their traditional long recess for the year.

After all, many of our lawmakers are likely exhausted from passing important bills, like the one legalizing spearing the state's rapidly dwindling frog population by floodlight.

They also made a ham-handed attempt to severely cut prison funding in some of the worst and most dangerous ways, by dictating prison closures and eliminating guards.

That didn't happen. But it is clear that we need to do some deep thinking about the long-term future of our prisons.

Recently I spent some time with Heidi Washington, who for the last two years has been the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Somewhat ironically, she is an elected member of the board of the National Rifle Association.

In my experience, those who work in law enforcement are the least eager to make guns generally available to anyone.

I didn't ask her about that; I was more interested in how she saw her job. Washington, who is 47 and makes $155,000 a year, impressed me as being honest, conscientious, and devoted to her job, which might be the hardest in Michigan government.

She knows her stuff; she's worked for the department since 1998, serving as warden of two prisons along the way. As part of what she does, she has to worry about taking care of everyone in the state's vast and sprawling prison system, as well as protecting us from them.

Washington got the top job in the aftermath of the Aramark prison food scandal. If she is indeed a conservative, she is a sensible and sane one. Though a loyal employee, she spoke out early against Aramark, the company that brought us maggots in food, and workers who frolicked with inmates.

Washington also sees prisons as one of the "core functions" of state government, and doesn't have any use for prisons run by private, for-profit companies. Nor is she a believer in keeping everybody locked up as long as possible, as do some politicians, like Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who loves to oppose sensible things like easier parole for low-risk inmates, so that he can bellow that he is tough on crime.

The fact is that prisons are the biggest part of our state budget, thanks in large part to a misguided effort in the '80s and '90s to solve the drug problem by locking everybody up.

That did little or nothing to win the so-called war on drugs, but did balloon the prison population to 51,000 11 years ago. Fortunately, sense in sentencing started to prevail.

The number of prisoners has fallen to 40,317, as of last month. Washington agrees it needs to fall further.

"I don't know what that number should be," she says when I asked how many inmates she thought could be safely paroled. "But I know we aren't there yet."

Her department has been compiling an excellent record in reducing recidivism — the number of prisoners who, once released, end up back in a state pen within three years.

Twenty years ago, close to half of all prisoners were back in the slam within three years after getting out. Now, Chris Gautz, the state corrections department's spokesperson, tells me that's down to 29.8 percent.

True, some of the others are back in county jails, but for misdemeanors, not felonies. Washington sees the key to successfully reducing the long-term prison population as a combination of education and help adjusting to life outside.

She's proudest perhaps of a new "vocational village" program at the prison in Ionia, where inmates approaching their release dates are given training in the skilled trades; she's been leaning on business leaders to tour it and consider hiring the parolees. Early feedback has been so positive they plan to open a second "village" in Jackson soon.

Prisoners who have been locked up for decades — think "White Boy Rick" Wershe, for example — have other problems:

When he went to prison, it was another century, and there was no practical internet, no smartphones, no GPS.

They've been working with those about to come out to prepare them for life in today's high-tech world.

Beyond that, however, are issues nobody has begun to address. Something like 10,000 state prisoners are over 50. Some are over 90, and more are confined to wheelchairs.

Since anyone in prison is ineligible for Medicaid, it often costs the state as much as $200,000 a year, or more, for the medical expenses for a single elderly con.

You might think it would make sense to commute their sentences, and perhaps find a nursing home to take them, which would save the state and the taxpayers millions.

This is a problem which will get steadily worse and more expensive, as will the cost of incarcerating the one-fifth or so in the inmates who are severely mentally ill.

Maybe our term-limited legislators will see this piece and suddenly decide to be statesmen for once, come together, and figure out how to do the right thing.

Or maybe not.

Worry about mental health in Wayne County

Few outside the organization noticed, but late last month Ron Hocking, the chief operating officer of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, quietly resigned for another job.

He is the latest in an exodus that began soon after Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools notable for his integrity, announced in April he would leave DWMHA when his contract expires at the end of August.

Watkins, who has been interested in mental health issues his entire life, hit the ground running four years ago, and did a lot to transform and streamline services. He put patient care first, turned what had been a county agency into an independent authority, and managed to generate new revenue.

But he couldn't quite escape the Wayne County culture of cronyism, and was overruled by the board when he attempted to force a for-profit company to refund more than $1.4 million in unapproved "administrative fees," they tacked on to a contract. The board also took away his ability to terminate other contracts, lest their friends suffer.

Seeing the way things were going, Watkins graciously decided to leave. The authority's chief information officer and chief of staff have left too. What all this means for the many thousands serviced by the agency isn't clear.

But I'll bet it isn't good.

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