By JULIE MIANECKI
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan is scheduled to eliminate a money-saving prison program in two years unless the incoming Legislature extends it.
The Special Alternative Incarceration (SAI) facility in Chelsea runs a 90-day program that’s an alternative to prison and saves the state $30 to $35 million a year, as estimated by state fiscal analysts.
“What we’re doing in the Department of Corrections at this point is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Fred Goff, SAI deputy warden and a 37-year department employee. “We’re actually addressing the needs of the offender to provide them with the tools they need to become successful and also to protect the community.”
Both those on probation and those in prison are eligible for the program, said Keith Hickmon, the parole and probation manager for the facility.
However, many crimes disqualify candidates, so most trainees were convicted of nonviolent offenses. The facility holds about 400 trainees at a time.
When sentencing defendants, judges have the option of sending them to the SAI facility, which started admitting women in 1992 but began as a military-style boot camp for men only in 1988.
“Research has shown over the years that that does not work,” Goff said of the military approach. “If somebody is getting ready to commit a crime, I don’t want them to give me 50 push-ups. I want them to think about it.”
In 2008, SAI converted to a program that combines physical activity with behavioral education and therapy. That education covers such topics as critical thinking skills, anger management, substance abuse, family dynamics and even how to choose an appropriate significant other.
“We call that program ‘Pick a Partner,’” Goff said. “A lot of people think that’s not important, but it really is because a lot of our individuals have selected enablers or people who are much like themselves. When you’re paroled and are released into the community, you can’t go back to someone who’s using drugs or drinking alcohol.”
Trainees, as participants are called, can also obtain GEDs and develop life skills such as managing finances, writing a resume and interviewing for a job.
“Most of our people have never had a checkbook,” Goff said. “They may have had a credit card, but unfortunately it usually belonged to someone else.”
Goff added that it’s vitally important to the trainees’ future success that they gain such basic skills before returning to their communities.
“What we used to do in the prison system was give somebody $75 and send them on their way,” he said. “We found that didn’t work because the majority of people just get high, or don’t even make it back to their parole agents.”
The effect of SAI on the recidivism rate – the rate at which released prisoners reoffend –is under study by the JFA Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice research group, but Goff said it is lower than the rate for inmates in traditional facilities.
Lower recidivism rates and reduced prison costs are important to a cash-strapped budget, said Jennifer Cobbina, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University.
“Jails and prisons are overcrowded and states just can’t afford it,” Cobbina said. “And it’s not necessarily helping those who are incarcerated, most of whom are nonviolent offenders.
“Research often shows that prisoners in traditional facilities often come out worse than they went in because they’re nonviolent offenders, and they’ve been hardened,” she said.
Cobbina added that it’s often difficult to get lawmakers to accept alternative incarceration programs because they don’t want to be seen as “soft on crime.”
Elizabeth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said that type of thinking creates negative outcomes for both the state and its residents.
“I hope it’s not just looked at from an ideological point of view,” Arnovits said. She said opponents of extending the SAI program after Dec. 31, 2012, “are just upset that people aren’t going to prison for a long period of time – they’re not looking at the effectiveness of the programming or the reduced risk to the community.”
Corrections Director Patricia Caruso agreed that the SAI program helps to break the cycle of crime and deserves another chance.
“I know it will stay open if the decision is based on outcomes and performance,” Caruso said. “When you make decisions outside of that, all bets are off.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.