New data shows that as nonviolent offenders are released from Michigan jails to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, crime rates are not increasing. The information could signal the beginning of prison reform. Photo via Shutterstock. low recitivism
New data shows that as nonviolent offenders are released from Michigan jails to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, crime rates are not increasing. The information could signal the beginning of prison reform. Photo via Shutterstock.

The state now has even more formerly incarcerated residents looking for support as they reclaim their lives.

DETROIT—The number of incarcerated Michiganders has sharply fallen this year and more of these residents are reclaiming their lives, not returning to prison.

Michigan’s rate of recidivism—that is, the number of formerly incarcerated residents who go back to prison—hit an all-time low in 2020. This has prompted the Michigan Department of Corrections to close one of its 29 facilities: the Detroit Reentry Center (DRC).

The DRC’s closure has been in the cards for a while, as the population of the facility has fallen steadily year-over-year.

“The writing’s been on the wall for some time. They’ve been steadily decreasing the population,” Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, told the Detroit Free Press. “Basically, we were just waiting for official notice so people could get their ducks in a row and figure out what they’re gonna do.”

And DRC isn’t the only facility to do so. Another location in Lansing is slated to close after reaching a 30-year low in its housed population.

What Leads to Low Recidivism

The number of incarcerated Michiganders is a little more than half what it was at its peak in 2007 according to Michigan Radio. The number housed at the DRC, which primarily handled people on dialysis, was a mere one-fifth of what it was at its peak. And that recidivism rate could continue to fall. 

Research shows that recidivism can be dramatically reduced by focusing on a rehabilitation model for corrections systems and not a punitive model, explained researchers Don Andrews, James Bonta, and Paul Gendreau. In other words, the role of a prison is most effective when it is helping redress the root causes of crime and not merely exacting revenge on those found guilty.

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Their model is far more like mental health intervention, focusing on cognitive behavioral therapy focused on those who pose a high risk of recidivism, and tailored to the individual needs of each incarcerated person. Then, the researchers suggest, provide continuing support once those who have gone through the program reenter society at large.

Experts suggest that the first 72 hours after release is the biggest influence on recidivism, that is the chance that once released a person will become incarcerated again. After release, Americans often have no money, no job, and nowhere to stay. Reluctance on the part of landlords and employers to rent to or hire the released increase the likelihood of homelessness, which in turn increases the likelihood of being arrested again. 

Taking the Conversation to a National Level

Former Vice President Joe Biden has plans to address those shortcomings in the criminal justice system and further reduce recidivism. 

“My view is we should turn prison reform—and I’ve been preaching this the last five years—from prison punishment to reform,” Biden said in early September. “So for example, anybody serves their time in prison when they get out, they should be entitled to every single program that exists under the federal government.”

That includes everything from grants to pursue an education to housing and food assistance.

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“Why don’t we want them getting a Pell grant and going to school? Why don’t we want them getting a job and being able to get public housing subsidies? Why don’t we want them qualifying for what used to be called food stamps?”

In this approach, Biden himself is trying to right some wrongs in his past. In 1994 he supported a crime bill that went on to cause the flooding of prisons with Black Americans, a bill he now deeply regrets and is attempting to undo the damage it has wrought. 

At a 2019 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event, Biden explained that his support of that bill was wrong, and born out of flawed information given to the Senate laden with systemic prejudice and bias. 

“It was a big mistake that was made,” he said. “White America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism, and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”

By contrast, Trump has lauded his signing of the bipartisan First Step Act which has reduced mandatory minimum prison sentences, but experts say the First Step Act was aptly named. 

“Nobody who thinks seriously about mass incarceration thinks that it comes close to what needs to be done,” David Sklansky, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, told Politico.

But How Does This Impact Local Crime?

Throughout 2020, thousands of Michiganders were released from prisons as the pandemic ravaged the population living there, as well as the staff.

The Michigan Sheriffs’ Association said inmates were freed to reduce jail populations and help ease the spread of the coronavirus. That meant statewide, jail populations in mid-March fell from approximately 17,000 of 18,000 available beds to about 8,000 just six weeks later.

Wayne, Genesee, and Ingham Counties each reduced their jail populations by 40%, 25%, and 30%, respectively, according to data collected by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. Despite this, the overall crime rate has remained stagnant in Michigan.

READ MORE: As Michigan’s Jails Empty, Crime Is Stagnant.

The Detroit Reentry Center closing shows continued criminal activity or recidivism have not been a large issues throughout the state following the release of prisoners during the first peak of the pandemic. 

Data from before the pandemic—the most recent data reported by the Michigan State Police—shows instances of crime falling regularly over the past decade, from more than 700,000 in 2010 to around 600,000 in 2019.

Despite a small resurgence of instances of crime in places like Detroit resulting from the tumult of 2020—from widespread protests ranging from mourning the death of Black Americans at the hands of police, to resisting stay-at-home orders designed to mitigate the spread of the pandemic coronavirus—Michigan’s overall trend has been toward a marked reduction in crime, statistics show.

Though the unrest borne of 2020 has bucked trends somewhat, the overall picture shows lower crime rates, record-low recidivism and a unique opportunity going forward to further reduce the rate of reincarceration among Michiganders who have served their time.

A Look Back:

The ‘Gander’s Ellen Chamberlain contributed to this report.