Granholm must now deliver prison reforms

February 14, 2008 By Jeff Gerritt The Detroit Free Press

Michigan's packed prison system is bankrupting the state, economically and morally. If Gov. Jennifer Granholm, midway through her second term, is looking for a legacy, here it is: Start to bring the prison population, now the size of Battle Creek, down to where it serves justice and the taxpayer. Enable Michigan eventually to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more each year for smoother roads, better universities and more police officers. A former prosecutor wary of getting a soft-on-crime tag, Granholm finally appears ready to roll on prison reform. She knows the state can no longer afford to spend $2 billion year -- that's $5 million a day or 20% of the state's general fund -- and get so little in return. Today, one in three state civil service employees works for Corrections; in 1980, one in 20 did. The Michigan Department of Corrections has had some success controlling its prison population in the last three years. Still, with more than 50,000 inmates, the population is more than three times what it was 25 years ago. In her State of the State address, Granholm suggested adopting corrections policies similar to other Midwestern states that manage to spend less money than Michigan without compromising public safety. It's not a radical idea. Some of the state's top business leaders have embraced it. On average, Michigan incarcerates at a 40% higher rate than the seven other Great Lakes states, which also report lower crime rates. Bringing Michigan's incarceration rate down to similar levels would save $400 million a year, maybe more. Some efforts will take bills passed by the Legislature. Others, like releasing more parole-eligible inmates, will not. But all will take courage and aggressive leadership -- something Granholm has, up to now, failed to deliver on prison issues. As governor and party leader, she needs to step up and push necessary changes. The state's budget crisis has handed her an opportunity. The state must finally enact sentencing reforms that divert more low-level offenders into community programs. It must broaden the eligibility for boot camps, expand prisoner re-entry programs to reduce recidivism, grant parole hearings to parole-eligible lifers, treat more mentally ill offenders in the community, and release more severely sick or dying inmates who pose no risk. Near the top of Granholm's agenda should be repealing Michigan's notorious juvenile lifer law, which has rightly drawn fire from human rights groups worldwide. The law has forced judges to give kids as young as 14 -- an age when they can't legally drive or buy cigarettes -- the maximum adult penalty of life without parole in first-degree murder cases. More than 300 Michigan inmates are serving such sentences -- some, like Barbara Hernandez,

for aiding and abetting murder. Hernandez, now 33 and locked up in the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, was 16 when her 20-year-old boyfriend, James Hyde, killed a man she brought into an abandoned house where they stayed. In 1991, the Pontiac teenager got the same sentence as Hyde: life without possibility of parole. Hernandez had no prior record. She left home when she was 14 because of ongoing physical and sexual abuse by her father and stepfather. Hyde beat her regularly and forced her to prostitute to support his drug habit. On May 12, 1990, Hyde told her to bring the victim, James Cotaling, 28, into the house so that he could rob him. Hernandez, who said she was in another room when the stabbing occurred, said she had no idea Hyde would kill him. "Sometimes I wish he would have killed me, instead," Hernandez told me Tuesday. "That man (Cotaling) mattered to people. I didn't. No one would have missed me." All in all, I'm not sure what the right sentence would have been for Hernandez -- she has already done nearly 20 years. But just throwing away the key and, with it, even the possibility of a second chance for this 16-year-old was obscene. Granholm needs to take a hard look at some of these cases and get some fire in her for doing the right thing -- for everyone in Michigan. The governor should find a surprising amount of support for most of the reforms, including from clear-eyed businesspeople such as Rich Studley, vice president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. He asked more than a year ago: "Why is it that Michigan, compared to other states, puts more people in prison for longer periods of time for no difference in crime rates or recidivism?" In conversations with me on restructuring government, Richard Blouse, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Doug Rothwell, president of Detroit Renaissance, have raised similar concerns. Granholm can listen to those who continue to support the failed corrections and criminal justice policies of the past. Or she can carve a legacy of justice for herself and Michigan that will protect its citizens, save public money, and get Michigan off the international list of human rights violators. Nothing she can do in her final years as governor would matter more. JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at or 313-222-6585. Source: