Michigan’s disturbing crime problem discussed by prosecutor

Published 11:56 pm Friday, January 28, 2011

DOWAGIAC — “A very disturbing crime problem” plagues Michigan, Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz said Thursday.

In 2008, the Legislature and governor commissioned an independent study of various issues, including crime and the prison population, which found that Michigan’s level of violent crime runs 28.8 percent higher than other Midwest states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Michigan’s crime rate stood 103.7 percent higher than Minnesota and surpassed New York state by 29.2 percent, Fitz said, adding, “We’re 50.7 percent more violent than the national average.”

“Our solution is not to let dangerous offenders out,” Fitz said. “Let’s get our financial house in order. We spent $32,817 a year per prisoner. If we had the same system as Missouri ($16,432), we’d save three quarters of a billion dollars per year.”

“I’d like to point out,” interjected Lewis Cass Intermediate School District Superintendent Robert Colby, “that we spend $7,000 per student educating them.”

CNN in 2010 reported Detroit as the fourth-most violent city in the world.

“Some people might dispute that,” Fitz said, but that placed the Motor City behind Beirut, Lebanon; Cape Town, South Africa; and Caracas, Venezuela.

New Orleans and Moscow, Russia, followed farther down the list.

FBI statistics gave Michigan “the dubious honor” of being the only one of the 50 states with four in the top 10 violent cities — Saginaw, first; Flint; fourth; Detroit, fifth; and Pontiac, seventh.

“If you live in Saginaw,” the prosecutor said, “you’ve got 2.53 violent crimes per 100 residents. Michigan is a pretty violent place to live. We have a real problem. Michigan per-capita does put more violent felons in prison per-capita, compared to, for instance, South Dakota, where they have very little violent crime, because we have more felons who have committed tangible violent crimes like murder and rape.”

At Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889, Fitz debuted a PowerPoint presentation built on data “dug out” by the Prosecutors Association of Michigan to blunt Granholm administration attempts to release prison inmates to alleviate budget woes and to do away with truth in sentencing.

The Michigan Constitution says all political power is inherent in the people.

Government is instituted for the equal benefit and — “these are significant words,” Fitz emphasized — security and protection.

“Part of protecting the public is having a good defense system, too,” the prosecutor said to an audience that included two attorneys, John Magyar and Mark Herman.

“If you don’t have a balance, if someone doesn’t check the prosecutors and law enforcement, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Since 9/11 terrorist attacks — the almost 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001, Michigan has lost 10 percent of its law enforcement — “a significant percentage,” Fitz said. There were 23,157 police in 2001, compared to 20,778 by 2010.

“Things like crime labs, where the science has advanced, are worse than 10 years ago. It takes much longer to get reports on DNA than it used to because  we’ve lost a lot of those laboratory scientists. Even locally, I’m not going to mention any particular agencies, but I see it here. There are not as many detectives or officers patrolling the road.

“In Michigan, this again comes from the Council on State Government report, which came out in 2009, 28 percent of violent crime is solved in Michigan, compared to the national average of 44 percent. Not only is there more violent crime in Michigan, less of it gets solved. It’s a vicious cycle which contributes. Detroit has just a phantom police force, by many people’s opinion. Criminals rule the streets to a certain degree.”

Murders, 61 percent get solved nationally, compared to 37 percent in Michigan.

“These are numbers you don’t often hear,” Fitz said. “You will often hear that Michigan sends more people to prison per capita. We do, because we’re a very violent place. But, of convicted felons, our incarceration rate is half the national rate. On average, nationwide, four out of 10 convicted felons go to prison. In Michigan, it’s about half that rate (21.7 percent). One of the complaints prosecutors will give you for why we have more violent crime is because we don’t give them a hard dose of prison early on, like the rest of the nation does. It’s one reason why Michigan has more violence. We treat our felons more lightly the first time around. Perhaps, a small dose of prison would be more effective at getting them away from a life of crime rather than the other way around.”

Why Michigan sends half as many to prison as national average “goes a lot to how our complicated sentencing system works,” Fitz explained. “We have ‘indeterminate’ sentencing, which means you get two numbers, a minimum and a maximum. Many states have ‘determinate,’ with only one number. For example, five to 15 years or 10 to 15 years. About now, victims’ eyes start glazing over as you go through these.”

Fitz continued, “We also have in Michigan what’s called a ‘two-thirds rule.’ For instance, a home invasion, second degree, the top number’s 15 years. The most you can get for your minimum is two-thirds of the top number, or 10 to 15. Really, the operative number both victims and defendants want to know about is this bottom number, the minimum,” established by sentencing guidelines.

“If your minimum is zero to three months, that means jail only,” he said. “In Michigan, you cannot go to prison unless your bottom number, your minimum, is a year. So, if the guidelines come out from zero to 12 months, that’s jail only. Also, to make it even more confusing, zero to 17 months doesn’t mean prison. There’s an asterisk that means you can’t because when they set up these guidelines, they were anticipating being able to keep people in jail for 18 months, which never happened.

“If you go higher, zero to 24, zero to 19, the judge can give jail or prison. Sixty to 90 months would be prison only. A judge can go above or below that number if they can establish what are called substantial and compelling reasons to depart above or below the guidelines for the minimum,” Fitz said.

Michigan sends fewer convicted felons to prison than the national average “really because of our sentence guidelines,” Fitz said. “At one time there were no guidelines and the judge just had the two-thirds rule. He or she could sentence three to 15, 10 to 15, straight probation, whatever they wanted to do. Guidelines were advisory at first, then they made them mandatory. Since then, they’ve revised them, making it much more difficult to send non-violent prisoners to prison unless they have a long history — including drug dealers.

“Before, a first-time cocaine dealer could go to prison for 20 years. Now, it’s usually zero to six months or zero to nine months on their first offense. We were okay with that as prosecutors, keeping more non-violent offenders out of prison, if you let us keep violent offenders in prison. It wasn’t perfect, but we could live with it.”

At the beginning of 2009, there were 45,478 inmates confined to Michigan’s corrections system.

There were 31,990 in prison for assaultive crimes, 7,805 for first-degree or second-degree murder, attempted murder or assault with intent to murder and 5,574 incarcerated for armed robbery, carjacking and assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, which could be anything from breaking an arm or smashing a head to shooting someone.

“Of 615 people convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder in 2009, only 397 went to prison. The rest got probation or county jail. Many people who do commit violent crimes in Michigan don’t go to prison because the sentencing guidelines don’t allow judges the option, and sometimes the judge chooses not to,” Fitz said.

“Again in 2009, assault with a dangerous weapon,” be it a stabbing or pointing a gun, less than a third who were convicted saw prison time despite many having prior convictions on their records.

“Michigan prisons are not crowded with non-violent prisoners,” Fitz assured Rotarians.

Of 15,867 drug offenders convicted, only 2,116 went to prison.

“One out of five people who committed identity theft in Michigan in 2009 went to prison,” he said.

Fitz recalled that when he was in Muskegon before coming to Cass County in 2004, judges there were imprisoning six of every 10 felons and were rebuked by the Department of Corrections and “threatened” with program funding cuts for sending too many. “There are pressures on judges,” he said. “The reality is Michigan has a system now where it’s tough to get into prison unless you’re an extremely violent, dangerous or career criminal. It’s created a very dangerous storm. Michigan has budgetary problems, with efforts by the Department of Corrections and others to solve it by letting out more violent criminals. For myself, other prosecutors and law enforcement, that is a very dangerous proposition.

“In 2009, the governor expanded the parole board, which used to be an ally of victims and prosecutors. She wanted, in my opinion, and I’ll be very upfront about this, to get more people out of prison. She dissolved the parole board, got rid of all the old hardliners and not only put in new people, but she expanded the numbers to, I think, double. The floodgates began to open.

“As prosecutors, in addition to our duties in our counties, it forced us consider going to parole hearings in Lansing to keep these people in, like the Hilltop Laundry (in Union). I recall going with Rose King, whose niece witnessed multiple shootings. At a press conference on this issue (‘emptying’ the prisons), she said, ‘We wouldn’t be having these discussions if it was the governor’s family.’ We couldn’t even get notification of these hearings to fight them without signing up as victims ourselves. How does releasing more murderers, armed robbers and CSC (criminal sexual conduct) offenders make you safer?”

Then came an assault on truth in sentencing, which means a year imposed is a year served.

Legislation introduced by Bill Van Regenmorter in 1998 passed 132-1.

“It’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened in the State of Michigan for the public and for victims,” he said. “Prior to the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, There were all sorts of ways to get out of prison. I can recall someone sentenced to 40 to 70 years who was out in 16 years. Police, prosecutors went to seminars that tried to explain how they calculated these numbers. It gave great certainty to our system, and it still provided incentive for prisoners to behave because they got more time if they didn’t. There’s never been a study supporting that giving good time or credit improves prison behavior. Indiana has a 50-percent rule. If someone gets 10 years, they serve five.”

Fitz said, “Prosecutors, law enforcement officials and victims will tell you there’s great comfort in knowing what that earliest out date is. We’d have people in prison, then all of a sudden the person they assaulted would see them walking down the street.”

“Our objective is, if the DOC (Department of Corrections) doesn’t agree with all of our numbers, let’s have an independent study. We’ve been asking them for three years to do that because even guys like Alan Cropsey will tell you they can’t get numbers out of the DOC. Hopefully, with a new administration (it will be better). Republican and Democratic prosecutors are unified around the state and supportive of these issues. It’s not a partisan issue.”

During the question-and-answer period, Fitz said of the prison re-entry system, “I’m not particularly happy with the way it’s working, but that’s not for lack of effort by those involved in trying to do it. I think it was a rush job trying to get more people out of prison, but I think they went too quickly. Five years down the line you’ll have a truer picture (of recidivism), but one of the problems with that is the DOC changed its definition of recidivism. It used to be if you had a probation violation from not reporting on time, you were a recidivist. Now it’s defined as going back to prison on another felony conviction. I think it’s close to 50 percent. Last year, we had 10,000 people go to prison and half of them were parole violators.”