Concerns about prison costs this year have not deterred the Legislature’s appetite to tweak Michigan sentencing rules. Last week, the House, following the Senate, approved a version of a “four strikes” bill designed to put violent offenders behind bars for a minimum sentence of 25 years.
Senate Bill 1109 passed the House last week on a vote of 98-10, after a different version cleared the Senate 32-5 earlier in the year.
The bill goes back to the Senate for consideration of the changes.
The measures incorporates a “4 strikes and you’re out” concept touted by Attorney General Bill Schuette last winter which called for a mandatory 25-year sentence for a violent crime perpetrated by a criminal who has committed three previous felonies. In the first reaction to Schuette’s proposal, the state Corrections Department estimated a potential increase in spending at up to $1 billion.
As the legislation was drafted and amended, the price tag has fallen. A Senate Fiscal Agency analysis in May estimated the law will require an extra 7,374 beds by 25 years post-enactment, at an annual cost of $250.7 million. A House version, which more narrowly targets offenders, is pegged at a 25-year cost of just under $15 million, assuming 672 additional prison beds are needed by then.
Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz said the price is worth the cost of a safer public.
“This is smart justice that provides for surgical strikes against the worst of the worst criminals,” he said. “These are offenders with an established track record of career felony violence. It allows us to ensure that hard-core criminals are put away for a long period of time.”
Fitz, who testified in favor of the bill before the House Judiciary Committee, said the number of offenders the law will put behind bars is relatively small, maybe 200-250 cases per year statewide.
“The real question is what’s the greater value to society — protecting the public or worrying about the cost?” he asked.
The proposal for so-called VO-4 legislation was first made by Attorney General Bill Schuette in January, as the centerpiece of his office’s public-safety legislation.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said the department is officially neutral on the bill.
Advocacy groups objected nonetheless, calling the bill expensive and unnecessary.
“We oppose mandatory minimums in general,” said Barbara Levine, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons & Public Spending. “It takes away discretion from judges to tailor sentences as appropriate to individuals, (and it) confers the sentencing power to prosecutors.”
Levine said Michigan’s average prison stays and corresponding spending is higher than any of the 35 states examined in a recent Pew Center report on sentencing and prison spending nationwide.
Prosecutors already have a habitual-offender option to use in pressing cases against the most violent criminals, Levine said, and once so charged, judges have the discretion to increase maximum sentences, effectively achieving the same result as mandatory minimums.
What CAPPS most objects to, she added, is that the legislation puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors, when judges are the ones who are charged with weighing the interests of prosecution, defense and the general public.
“If you’re selling this as a way to more severely punish people who are habitual violent offenses, then the law should kick in when the prior offenses are violent,” Levine said.
Fitz said too often, it doesn’t, citing a case in Muskegon of a multiple violent offender who’d served “modest sentences,” and after release carjacked a woman at knifepoint and raped her repeatedly in front of her four-year-old child.
“If VO-4 had been in effect, this never would have happened,” he said. “If there are certain people who will not comply with the laws of a civilized society, we have to get them out of that society.”
The attorney general agrees, said his spokeswoman, Joy Yearout, who pointed out that increased public safety pays off in other ways, as well.
“With repeat violent offenders continually terrorizing our communities, there’s a cost to that,” she said. “The average murder costs the community and victims $8 million. There are tangible and intangible costs of unchecked crime.”