In a small, drab office at the Charles Egeler correctional facility in Jackson, Mich., Corey Russell, a 34-year-old stickup man, is taking a test that will determine whether he is ready to be let out of prison. “In the three to six months prior to this incarceration, how often were you bored in your spare time?” asks case manager Jennifer Tellez. “Quite often, actually,” says Russell, who is serving a 14-month sentence for attempting to rob a poker hall. Tellez works her way through the 130-question evaluation form in front of her. “In the last year, were you working any jobs?” Russell shakes his head. She asks whether he agrees with the following statement: “I am really good at sweet-talking people to get what I want.” Russell grins. “Agree!” he says.
As growing prison populations drain state budgets, Michigan is putting great effort into moving inmates out and keeping them out. During his time on the inside, Russell, like Michigan’s 43,120 other state prisoners, will sit for a lengthy evaluation once a year, each time earning a numerical score that identifies his “risk potential.” As inmates’ grades improve, their chances for parole increase. Corrections officials will continue to track their progress on the outside, offering counseling and help finding a job.
In many other states a judge or parole board sizes up inmates for release and asks just a handful of questions before making a decision. Ex-cons are largely left on their own once they’re set free. That works about as well as you’d imagine: Nationwide, 40 percent of ex-offenders wind up back in prison within three years. In Michigan it’s 30 percent—and falling. Since it began the Prisoner Reentry Initiative six years ago, the state has seen a 27 percent drop in recidivism and has reduced its prison population by 8,434 from its all-time high of 51,554 in 2007.
The program isn’t cheap. Michigan spent $56 million tracking the progress of prisoners in fiscal year 2011. Yet that’s a fraction of the state’s $1.8 billion corrections budget, and with more people being released and fewer coming back, Michigan has been able to do something that’s often politically unfeasible elsewhere: close prisons. Since 2005, Michigan has shut down 21 correctional facilities—more than any other state—saving $315 million, according to government records. Supervising a paroled prisoner costs about $2,130 a year, vs. more than $34,000 to keep him locked up.
Until six years ago, Michigan’s problems mirrored national trends. Its prison population had grown sevenfold since the 1970s, and spending on corrections had swelled to almost a fifth of the state’s budget. Most repeat offenders were going back to prison on parole violations, not for new crimes. “We were putting parolees back in for things like being 15 minutes late to appointments,” says Dennis Schrantz, who was Deputy Corrections Director until 2010. The legislature invested $12 million in a pilot program to help parolees make the transition back into the real world. “Now it’s more of a coaching model where success is at the center of it,” says Schrantz. “So you don’t kick them off the team for every violation.”
As an inmate’s release date draws near, the reentry program’s focus shifts from assessing risk to managing the details of everyday life on the outside: Does he have a place to live? A social security number to get a job—and any prospects for a job? Newly released offenders get a ride from the prison to their next destination and bus fare to the parole office a few days later. If they are homeless, the housing authority finds them a temporary apartment. Those who are at the highest risk of returning to prison are assigned a “transition team” of case workers from various state agencies—housing, mental health, employment—who call or meet with them several times a week for up to seven months to monitor their progress. The former inmates are enrolled in classes—“Thinking Matters,” “Cage Your Rage”—that address frustrations common to ex-cons.
These services are especially effective with the 25 percent of paroled inmates who are mentally ill, half of whom eventually return to prison. Before the changes these prisoners were released with a one-way bus ticket, 30 days’ worth of medication, and an order to report to a parole officer within a week, says Betsy Hardwick, a social worker who helps run Michigan’s program for prisoners with special needs. “If they showed up it was amazing,” she says. “If they managed to show up with their meds it was an act of God.”
At least nine other states, including Missouri and Oregon, are experimenting with initiatives similar to the one in Michigan, where corrections officials are now trying to figure out how to reach the 30 percent of parolees who don’t respond to the program and wind up back behind bars. Says spokesman Russ Marlan, “It’s not like we’ve created some potion you can drink where it turns career criminals into law-abiding citizens.”