Monica Davey's excellent NYTimes article today on the growing backlash against budget driven prison releases highlights a number of crucial issues facing those who hope budget woes will help break the states of their addiction to Mass Incarceration and Governing through Crime. She focuses on Michigan which in 2007 found itself with the 5th largest prison population in the country in the company of much larger states, and with a fast dwindling industrial economy. Because Michigan has a parole law, political leaders could both allow sentences to grow longer in the 1990s when fear of crime was rampant and fear based SUV sales kept Michigan's revenues strong. Thus while crime was dropping all over the country in the 1990s, Michigan's parole release rate was dropping. Once the fiscal crisis began, Governor Granholm could use the parole process (which she expanded by 15 new members to speed things along) to reduce the population by raising the parole rate. That is a tool state's like California, that give fixed sentences to most of their felony prisoners do not have.
However, Davey's article also underscores the political resistance to using parole or other early release vehicles. In Michigan, but also Illinois, and Colorado, "victim's rights" groups, prosecutors, and law enforcement, is opposing early release as a threat to public safety. These politically invested and powerful voices are much more significant than the corporate prison industry in keep the state's locked in. How many politicians could resist this kind of rhetoric:
In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners, for good behavior, shorten their sentences (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.”