The Difference in Sentencing for Convicted Felons

As this series over the last few weeks has highlighted, there are several different approaches to sentencing a felon, some of which are more common than others. For example, sentencing a felon to community service or restitution is highly uncommon, whether the individual has been convicted of a non-assaultive, assaultive or drug related felony. Prison time, jail time, a combination of jail and probation and then just probation are other sentencing options. For certain offenses, such as murder, prison time is required, and for other offenses, along with what the inmate’s criminal record is, other sentencing options may be viable.  

When an individual is sentenced to prison it means that they have been sentenced to spend at least a year in a correctional facility, whether it be controlled by the state or the federal government. Michigan has indeterminate sentencing, which means that an offender is sentenced with a minimum and maximum term of years to spend in prison. According to the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, in 2015 it cost between $32,000 and $38,000 a year to house an inmate, which includes probation/parole supervision and nonoperational overhead. Currently, Michigan’s prison population is at a 20-year low but expenses to house inmates and operate a jail continue to rise, in part due to rising health care costs and the aging prison population.

Those sentenced to jail time, or who spend time in jail, are either awaiting trial or sentencing or have been sentenced to serve a small amount of time. Jails in Michigan are under the jurisdiction of the county, not the state or the federal government. This means that the cost to house an inmate comes from the County budget. In Michigan there is also pay-to-stay policies in some county jails. According to a 2018 news story, jail inmates are charged between $20 and $60 a day at some county jails throughout Michigan. County jails too are facing rising costs with aging infrastructure being a large contributing factor. New jails are also being built in Michigan, some of which are reducing the number of beds though as a new approach to the criminal justice system begins to take hold.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, probation has been the primary form of supervision for felons in Michigan more than 100 years. The department states one of the reasons this is such a common form of sentencing is because it achieves public protection by assisting the offender in becoming a productive member of society. In order for such success to be achieved, the offender must be willing to participate and programs must be available. The typical felony probation is at least 18 months in length. According to the United States Courts, the annual cost of detaining a prisoner is much more significant than the cost of placing them on supervision. In Wayne County, officials stated that incarceration rates at the county jail facilities have decreased in recent years due to more offenders being placed on tether monitoring systems, which is part of a probation sentence. This approach costs less per offender than housing them in jail, according to Wayne County officials, but specific costs were not identified.

Recently, there has been a push to reevaluate the criminal justice system. In Michigan, for example a Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration was created to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s criminal justice system. According to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the jail population in Michigan has almost tripled in the last 30 years, despite crime rates being at a 20-year low. According to the Prison Policy Initiative there was about 225 prisoners incarcerated per 100,000 in 1985 and that increased to about 600 prisoners per 100,000 people in 2015. Discussions to decrease incarceration rates include increasing pre-trial services and better determining what treatment and programs may suit an individual better than jail time. If this approach does occur, future trends would reflect an increase in the probation and the “other” category and a decrease in incarceration rates. 

Next week we will take a deeper look as to how the percentage of felony offenders sentenced to either prison, jail, probation or other community service and treatment based alternatives has changed over the last decade. 

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