Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.

When the state instituted truth-in-sentencing guidelines for criminals in 1998 and eliminated the “good time” system that allowed inmates who behaved well to leave earlier, prison populations and costs expanded significantly, said John Cordell, public information specialist at the Department of Corrections.

As prison and jail headcounts hover around 70,000 and corrections spending exceeds $2 billion a year, the Legislature is considering a proposal by Rep. George Cushingberry, D-Detroit, to reinstitute the good time system for nonviolent offenders.

Reinstituting good time opportunities would give inmates a further incentive to behave while saving taxpayers more than $100 million annually, Cordell said.

The department estimates that the legislation could reduce the prison population by 7,550 within the first six months of enactment. Under the proposal, inmates would be credited with five days off for each month they don’t commit any major misconduct violations during the first two years of their sentence.

In years three and four, inmates could shave six days off their sentences each month.

Cordell said department specialists track good time credits for the 14,000 prisoners who were sentenced before the truth-in-sentencing laws took effect in 1998. They are still covered by the old system.

Since 1998, defendants are required to serve at least their minimum term before becoming eligible for parole.

“Michigan continues to be a progressive state in how it deals with prisoners. This is another step to allow the department to provide some incentives to behave while in the prison population,” Cordell said. If the bill passes, inmates can “continue to show good behavior in communities rather than in prisons where it costs $33,000.”

Lapeer County Prosecutor Byron Konschuh said he would like to be able to inform his clients that a criminal is actually going to serve his or her full sentences.

Risking safety?

If legislators want to save money, they should take a “front-end” approach to crime prevention and invest in childhood education programs, he said.

“I’m totally opposed,” to Cushingberry’s proposal. “It shouldn’t be a deceptive thing,” Konschuh said. “Legislators are trying to save some money, but it’s at the risk of public safety. It sends the wrong moral message.”

However, Cordell said most offenders believe they won’t get caught, so more flexible sentencing measures won’t even cross their minds.

Tougher sentencing also hasn’t had any measurable impact on crime statistics in the decade since truth-in-sentencing was established, Cordell said.

Steadily rising

The prison population steadily rose from 43,821 in 1998 until peaking at 51,454 in 2006, according to the department.

“What we saw was an explosion in our prison population. It took away a tool to be released a little bit sooner because every prisoner had to serve their minimum sentence,” Cordell said. “What it did was create a more expensive prison system.”

Cushingberry’s bills are pending in the House Judiciary Subcommittee.

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