Shorter prison sentences may save taxpayers money

Taxpayers have to foot bill for long prison sentences

By Kevin Dietz - Reporter

DETROIT - Judges are often applauded for being tough on crime, but few ever think about the cost to taxpayers for a lengthy incarceration.

One judge says in some cases it may be in the public's best interest to give a shorter sentence.

Metro Detroit sees crime cases every day, but after the headlines, what happens next?

Those who are caught and convicted go to jail or prison. Many for a very long time.

"The United States has the longest sentences of any country in the western world," said Hon. Avern Cohn of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The Honorable Cohn has been a federal judge for decades. He has seen the state and federal prison system explode in size during his time on the bench.

"When I came to the bench it was 24,000," said Cohn. "Last year it was 218,000."

And with it, the cost of taking care of all those prisoners.

"In the state system, one-third of the state budget goes to the department of corrections," Cohn said.

It is taxpayers who pay for all the new prisons, the guards, the food and medical needs.

Cohn said, "The cost of incarceration is a consciousness now that we've got an elephant in the room, so to speak."

It's a price most are willing to pay to keep criminals out of our neighborhood, to send a message to others thinking about committing crimes. And as a punishment to those who break the law, many Metro Detroiters say do the crime, do the time.

"I feel like they should stay in prison a long time," said Maureen Gabriel of Shelby Township. "I don't think it's safe to bring them out in the streets again."

But now with a tight economy and a demand that tax dollars be closely monitored, there is a movement in some legal circles to talk about saving money by giving shorter sentences in certain kinds of cases.

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Local 4 legal expert Keith Corbett said, "Its like Marshall Dylan saying go to jail or get out of town by midnight, so the guy has the option to get out of town."

Corbett is a former federal prosecutor who prides himself on a career of locking up bad guys. He says putting cost into the equation for sentencing is a recipe for disaster.

"Anytime you don't give someone jail time, you save the tax payers money, at least in the short term," Corbett said. "Of course, if they come back and do whatever it is again and again, there is no doubt that you haven't saved them (the taxpayers) any money, and you perhaps caused them more grief."

Right now, in our federal court, there is a case involving a violent gang of robbers. They used guns, tied up victims and hit so many stores, they are looking at 80 years in prison.

The robbers are 20-years-old, and at a cost of $30,000 a year, tax payers will have spent over a $ 1 million on each inmate by the time the inmates turn 60. And they could still live for another 30 years after that. But how likely are they to commit new crimes in their 70s, 80s or 90s?

"After the age of 60 or 70, bank robbers retire, so you don't have to send them through the rest of life," Cohn said.

There is no guarantee they won't commit more crimes, but one thing is certain -- the older they get in prison, the more expensive it is to take care of them.

Cohn said that's because you have people who can't walk, or go blind or need special diets.

In another local case, a big time heroine dealer was busted. Prosecutors want him locked up for at least a dozen years. The defense said he is an illegal alien and as soon as he gets out, he will be deported to another country. The defense says six years is plenty of time and tax payer money to send a message.

"Why should an American citizen wind up doing more time in jail than a person who is here either as a visitor or illegally?" asked Corbett.

"All I know is they're going to go back and that's a factor," said Cohn.

Or are we better off sending a message that if you sneak into the country and commit a dangerous crime, you will pay?

"They will have to deal with that where they are sending him," said Detroit resident Raychel McCoy.

"Sometimes you decide that the interest of society requires they be punished, even though you know eventually they'll be sent back," said Cohn.

There is no right or wrong answer. Each judge looks at every case individually. Is it a first time offense? Are they likely to break the law again? Are they dangerous? Can they be reformed? And now, how much will it cost, and what is in the overall best interest of the community?

"If it is a non violent crime, it could save some money," said Jody Ostntoski from Mount Clemens.

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