This Republican Governor Wants to Put Fewer People Behind Bars

The bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform just got another nod from the right.
Gov. Rick Snyder announced ambitious criminal justice reforms for Michigan on Monday. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
May 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Monday, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, outlined sweeping reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, suggesting that fewer people should be sent to the state’s prisons, and former offenders must be reintegrated into society. “Our society can protect public safety by deterring crime, and separate dangerous individuals from society at large,” Snyder said. “But if we focus on crime and punishment alone, we ignore the opportunity to help break the cycle of crime that plagues too many communities.”

Snyder’s rationale is mainly driven by Michigan’s financial and economic crisis. Michigan’s Department of Corrections’ $2 billion budget consumes between 20 percent and 25 percent of the state’s general fund, and the state’s prisons house nearly 44,000 people. Each prisoner costs the state around $34,000 per year. This is higher than the national average of $31,286, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan policy research center, which has collected data on the costs of prisons to taxpayers. In his speech, Snyder suggested the state find a more cost-effective way to handle elderly and mentally ill prisoners—two expensive prison populations.

Some of the reforms Snyder proposed might seem surprising, coming from a Republican governor. But in recent years, more conservatives—at the state and the federal level—are changing their tune when it comes to the tough-on-crime policies Republicans and conservative Democrats have promoted for much of the last three decades. As noted by The New York Times, even states in the Deep South are making serious efforts to lower their prison populations. Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia have passed reforms in recent years to tweak sentencing practices that have made the region the geographic leader in incarceration rates in the U.S., which puts more of its citizens behind bars than any other country in the world. For many conservative leaders, the impetus is largely financial. But the shifts are also being driven by an unlikely coalition of religious conservatives and liberal social justice advocates.

Conservative governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, and Steve Beshear of Kentucky have talked boldly of significant criminal justice reforms in the past year. Christie, for example, called for treatment for drug offenders instead of prison or jail. Daugaard criticized his state’s ineffective juvenile justice system. Beshear made clear that Kentucky must work harder to fully integrate former offenders into the workforce. “Folks, we can’t tell people who have paid their debt to society, oh, just get out of here, get a job, and get your lives back in order while at the same time we make it impossible for them to do so,” Beshear told legislators at the state Capitol.

Snyder’s speech was well received by Kentucky’s prison reform groups and the state’s law enforcement community. Among the supporters was Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. Jungel told the Detroit Free Press that he hoped Snyder’s motivation wasn’t purely about saving money. "Economics can't be the engine that drives the train of public safety," Jungel said.