Governor Snyder's 'Smart Justice' Improves The Risk/Reward Payoff For Armed Criminals
Michigan House Bills 4419/4420, Proposed Substitute H-3, gut Michigan’s 25 year old mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with firearms. Introduced by Republican Representative Kurt Heise (R-20th) of Plymouth and co-authored by 28 bleeding heart Republicans (4) and Democrats (24), these bills:
- 1. Convert Michigan’s long standing mandatory 2/5/10 year minimum sentences for criminals using firearms into maximum sentences
- 2. Allow ‘use of firearms’ sentences to be served concurrently with the underlying crime sentences for the first time
- 3. Allow prisoners serving ‘use of firearms’ sentences to be paroled prior to completing even these sentences
Now the proponents of ‘Smart Justice’ are telling the public that their effort will:
- – reduce the number of ‘non violent prisoners’ held in Michigan prisons
- – reduce the price Michigan pays for incarceration
As you might imagine, this is quite attractive to Michigan politicians who just got slapped down on Proposal 1. The Michigan Department of Corrections consumes $ 2 billion in General Fund revenues every year. Roughly 20% of the total General Fund.
Governor Snyder kicked off this issue back in early March with his Special Message to the Legislature on Public Safety. The primary public advocate driving his ‘Smart Justice’ sentencing reforms is one Barbara Levine, the Assistant Director of Research and Policy at the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Policy and one of Governor Snyder’s appointees on Michigan’s new Criminal Justice Policy Commission. She just released a massive study titled “10,000 fewer Michigan prisoners: Strategies to reach the goal”. This could produce up to a 23% drop in prison spending, something on the order of $ 450 million a year. A lot of new Lansing office buildings with views and more idle train cars in Owosso. A Pavlovian metronome irresistibly beckoning our state politicians.
But how much would it cost Michigan residents in crime taxes?
In her study, Ms. Levine assures us that the Michigan prison population can be reduced drastically without dramatically increasing crime rates. Her logic is that prison population in Michigan has not correlated with the incidence of ‘index crimes’ (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, car theft, and arson). This point is also being made by prisoner advocates across the country, but is it true?
If you look at the data contained in Appendix A of Ms. Levine’s 96 page tome, you will see that there was actually a good correlation between the increase of Michigan’s prison population from 1983 to 1998 and a corresponding decline in our incidence of index crimes. Index crimes in Michigan fall 29% as the prison population rises 216% during this period. But then from 1999 to 2013, this correlation falls apart. Index crime incidence falls another 42%, while the prison population peaks in 2006 and then declines about 15% into 2013.
There are at least three major reasons why there is a seeming break in the correlation between the incidence of index crimes and prison population in Michigan during the 1999 to 2013 period.
First and foremost, the demographics of Michigan have changed markedly over the 1980 – 2015 period. Our state’s median age was 28.8 years in the 1980 Census (caution: huge files). This has risen to 39.1 years in the U.S. Census’ 2013 estimate. This aging of Michigan’s population has reduced the 15 – 34 male age group whom are most likely to commit crimes by 379,000 – 23% – over the 1980 – 2015 period. 1999 just happens to be the year the last of the huge ‘baby boom’ generation turned 35. No surprise there would be a notable pivot in social statistics at this year.
We also know that the accuracy of recent crime statistics in Michigan leaves something to be desired. Detroit’s arson numbers don’t even pass the laugh test at the FBI due to outright fraud. One of Ms. Levine’s index crimes. Chicago has taken the art of fudging crime statistics to new heights, removing even murders from their crime totals. We don’t know how widespread this statistical skullduggery has become, but it clearly calls into question Ms. Levine’s data showing index crimes have dropped precipitously. Maybe we are only seeing the data being massaged by police bureaucrats under intense pressure from their urban masters.
The third major issue is causality. Prison population increases and decreases with crime incidence over time, assuming that conviction rates do not change. So at the same time that you are trying to determine whether crime rates are affected by the size of prison populations, you know very well that prison population is determined by crime rates. This reflexive interdependence of the variables confounds statistical analyses of these data, even if you were to correct for demographic changes and have confidence in the data set accuracy.
One honorable mention should be made at this point of Michigan’s PA 101 of 2004 ‘shall issue’ reform of concealed pistol licensing which took effect statewide in 2004 – much earlier in reactionary blue dog Democratic counties like Macomb. Many Michigan criminals were just smart enough to cease activities entailing a high probability of incurring traumatic lead poisoning. Criminal behavior changed significantly, further damaging the previous correlation between prison population and index crimes.
Another honorable mention should be made of the Federal Reserve’s relentless expansion of the U.S. money supply after the 2000 tech stock crash. Not only did this flood of money drive up house prices until they collapsed in 2007, it also drove up commodity prices to the point where scrap metal theft could comfortably support a scorching illegal drug habit. The complete absence of Michigan law enforcement made metal theft the crime of choice amongst Michigan scumbags until commodity prices crashed last year. Very little chance of winning a free vacation in Jacktown if you were mining the abundant supply of abandoned houses (thank you Alan Greenspan) in Michigan’s urban areas.
Now there is, however, a single very clever 1996 study by Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab which avoids these pratfalls: “The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation”. In his study Mr. Levitt calculated the effects (by measuring their elasticity) consequent to sudden releases of prisoners due to court orders concluding prison overcrowding litigations. He looked at what happened when prisoners were prematurely released into society; exactly what Ms. Levine is advocating for Michigan. His study design neatly avoided the statistical confounding problem which plagues every other study on this subject. The period Mr. Levitt studied was 1971 to 1993; a period of relatively stable demographics and prior to widespread ‘data driven’ crime statistics massaging. If you don’t want to wade through Mr. Levitt’s entire study, start in the vicinity of Table VII. That’s where the real fun bits begin.
Mr. Levitt’s study concluded that every index crime rate increased subsequent to court ordered mass releases of prisoners. Property crimes increased the most: larceny, burglary, assault, robbery, and auto theft – in this order. Murder and rape rose much less, consistent with their predominant character as ‘one off’ crimes of momentary passion and probably also colored by the infrequent releases of such criminals during court ordered prison population reductions. Prison authorities only released a few, very old, murderers and rapists when they were forced to select prisoners for early releases.
Mr. Levitt then went on to assign period realistic costs to crimes and incarceration. His economic analysis is reasonable and shows that the costs of crime and incarceration to society were in good balance during 1993, a year when Michigan’s prison population was quite similar to today’s as a percentage of Michigan’s total population. It is Ms. Levine’s responsibility to demonstrate that Michigan’s current prison population is out of balance with its benefits to civil society before she demands a 10,000 person reduction in prison population, something she has not yet done. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it either.
The strong larceny, burglary, assault, robbery, and auto theft correlations Mr. Levitt’s study found after mass early prison releases should also give Representative Heise pause to reflect on gutting mandatory minimum sentences for crimes using firearms. Most proponents of prison population reduction claim that they only intend to accelerate the release of non violent criminals. So why gut mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who use the most violent instruments available in our society? Food for thought.
What can we do beyond opposing ‘Smart Justice’ prison releases? Keep your CPL up to date and get out to the range a bit more often. Centerfire handgun ammunition is back on the gun store shelves. Make good use of it.