Sunday, January 04, 2009

Mike Bishop's Myopic Prison Solution: Cut Worker Pay

There are none so blind as those who will not see, and there are none so dangerous as those who insist on clinging to their failed partisan ideology in the face of the need for real, comprehensive reform in state policy. And just like the budget battle of 2007, Mike Bishop is setting the Republican Senate up to dig in their heels and ignore reality, common wisdom, and expert reports on reducing Michigan's prison costs, and instead is focusing on the Richard Shelby solution to all of life's problems; busting union contracts and cutting worker pay.

First we have to highlight this laughable and disingenuous statement. If Bishop doesn't really like "cuts", then why has it been his answer to every single problem that we face?

"I don't like to say we've got to cut, cut, cut. I never thought I'd be in government to say that. But it is the reality of our times. This is the discussion we have to have."

And why does Bishop think that the Senate should be in control of that discussion? Voters made their wishes clear this past November on which party they would like to see take the lead on policy, would have cleaned out the Senate if they could have, but Mike, in all his arrogance, dismisses the House as "rookies" who need his guidance.

Speaker Dillon, care to respond to this one while it is fresh in everyone's mind?

In 2009, he said, the budget will be the dominant topic of discussion. The Senate will have to take the lead, Bishop said, since one-third of House members will be new to the job due to term limits.

Yes, let's turn this all over to the people who screwed up the MBT and brought the government to the point of shutdown because their main goal in life was to make Democrats pay a political price over a tax increase that everyone knew was going to happen no matter what. We can throw in all the other endless examples of Senate Republican incompetence and obstruction as well, if we had the time. It would make a perfect case study of how not to run government.

Bottom line is: If we want to see real government reform, the last person we should turn to for leadership is Mike Bishop, and his statements on the issue of cutting prison costs is just one example of why. He has a one-track mind, and that track is simply “cut”.

Every single study so far has indicated that Michigan's problem is mainly our high rate of incarceration as compared to other states. From prison policy experts, to state budget analysis, the number of people we lock up and the length of time we lock them up for are seen to be the culprit for escalating costs. In the interest of brevity, let's look at the report on state budget priorities from Public Sector Consultants for the Detroit Renaissance group. Big names like Sikkema, Lannoye and Rustem wrote this up, so you can’t really claim a liberal or union bias.

Changes to criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines are difficult political pills to swallow. Legislators tend to be wary of proposals that would reduce sentences and make them look “soft on crime”—a stance that is typically reinforced by the law enforcement community and victim’s rights groups. However, Michigan’s prison incarceration rate is 45 percent higher than the average of the Great Lakes states. In order to reduce spending now, as well as for the long term, changes must be made to the state’s approach to dealing with criminal behavior. By resolving to reduce the prison population to meet the Great Lakes average, Michigan’s legislators will demonstrate their commitment to appropriate fiscal practices and recognize cost avoidance annually, up to roughly $400 million per year.

An important consideration when cost savings are achieved by lowering the prison population or reducing the time that a prisoner stays in prison is the reinvestment cost of releasing prisoners back into society. Initiatives to reduce the prison population and control spending must be balanced with reinvestment dollars (such as the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative), which will improve the likelihood that prisoners who are released are not returned to the custody of the state system.

Basically, get them out, and have a support system in place so they stay out. That is where your biggest cost savings can be found - significant reform in the way we handle prisoners, both in sentencing, and reintegration with society. That is what the pros tell us to do. This report, and others like it, does take a look at state employee benefits as far as health care and pension concerns go, but you are hard-pressed to find examples where employee pay (except for overtime costs) are a major factor in reducing overall prison costs.

So, in the face of this evidence, why is Bishop insisting that employee pay is the problem?

Departments may have to close or merge and some of the state's 50,000 employees may have to take pay cuts, Bishop said. As an example, he points to the state's corrections budget, which amounts to more than is spent on education. Indiana, he said, pays its corrections workers half as much as Michigan.

"The solution is not just to close prisons and release prisoners. ... The solution is how we can afford our corrections employees," he said. "This isn't about hard-working people. This is about a system ... that isn't working."

And who does Bishop sound like when he lasers in on union employees, while conveniently ignoring the rest of “the system”?

It's the same message auto workers are hearing from Congress and many others in the private sector are facing.

And somewhere out there, with the dog-whistle that only the extremists on the right can hear, Betsy DeVos still whispers in the night, “Michigan workers make too much money”.

We have a report coming by the end of the month from the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments that will show us the "series of steps to create a more effective and affordable crime fighting strategy for Michigan". Sensible reductions, such as overtime pay and restructuring of benefits will probably be included, and unions will probably be willing to take a look at any reasonable proposal put forth. After all, auto workers and other union members across the country have made concessions and demonstrated that they can be flexible given the current state of the national economy.

Question now is: Will Senate Republicans also demonstrate the willingness to compromise and apply some common sense when it comes to prison reform? Given Bishop's statements so far on the issue, it's not looking good for those who yearn for true leadership from the Senate. Bishop indicates that he thinks that the governor is looking to pass the solutions on to the next adminstation; it's too bad for us that his obstructionist and partisan behavior might be the reason why we end up having to do just that.