On November 12, 2015, Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III spoke to WMU Cooley Law School students, faculty and staff at the Michaelmas “Integrity in our Communities” speaker series about Michigan’s perceived “mass incarceration.” According to Dunnings, one of the most difficult aspects of being a prosecutor in Michigan is battling a widespread belief that prosecutors promote mass incarceration and that the judicial system imprisons people unjustly.
Dunnings told the audience that this assertion was wrong, as Michigan has the highest crime rate of any state in the Midwest. Moreover, Dunnings indicated that only 10 percent of all felons are sent to prison at initial sentencing. And that those 10 percent committed violent crimes or are habitual offenders. The other 90 percent who are sent to prison were initially given alternative sentencing arrangements such diversion programs, community service, or local jail time, which proved unsuccessful.
“In Michigan, only 10 percent of felons are sent to prison on the date of their sentencing,” stated Dunnings. “So if you’re a felon and you’re going to be sentenced on the date of sentencing, nine times out of 10 you’re not going to go to prison. You may go to the county jail or do some probation, but you are not initially going to go to prison. The rest of the people who go to prison in any given year are people that have violated probation or violated parole. We’ve tried sending them back to their communities, … but it didn’t work. That’s why they are ending up in prison. We’re sending more people to prison for violating parole or probation than we are from their initial sentencing.”
Even though people are not initially being sentenced to prison, Dunnings said the amount of people in prison is a serious concern. Currently, 43,000 people reside in Michigan’s prisons at an annual cost of $2 billion a year, which is 20 percent of the state’s general fund.
“This is a problem which … crosses party lines,” continued Dunnings. “The DOC [Department of Corrections] budget takes up about 20 percent of the general fund budget, which is quite a bit, and doesn’t leave money for a lot of other things we really need. But it’s not an easy decision to make.”
In order to reduce the prison population, the Michigan House has recently passed House Bill 4138 which provides for “presumptive parole.” The bill, which Gov. Rick Snyder indicated he supports, is currently before the Senate. If the bill becomes law, once prisoners have served their minimum sentence they will automatically be eligible for parole. Dunnings does not think the bill makes sense and said Michigan prosecutors oppose the bill. He explained that currently, when a person is up for parole, the person has to convince the parole board that he has met the requirements for parole and that parole should be granted. However, if the bill becomes law, once prisoners have served their minimum sentence they will automatically be eligible for parole. Dunnings indicated that under the sentencing guidelines, a person is given a sentencing range and that the range can be vast, such as three to 40 years.
“Under presumptive parole the person is presumed to have met all of those criteria unless the board is presented with evidence to the contrary, and that person gets out,” said Dunnings. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. … We have this indeterminate sentence structure. Under presumptive parole, once a person served his minimum he’s out the door. As prosecutors we oppose this change. We don’t oppose sentencing reform but we believe the parole board should be allowed to do what its there to do – make individualized assessments of each prospective parolee. … In many of these cases there is a vast gulf between the minimum sentence and the maximum sentence.”
Instead of presumptive parole, Dunnings said prosecutors would like to see sentencing reform that provides parolees with individualized assessments, service and support. “We have people who have been in and out of the system for years. They are going into society with little more than the clothes on their backs and in terms of support they have even less on the outside than when they were in prison. The Department of Corrections has made some significant strides providing support for people who have come out on parole because the recidivism rate for those people has dropped and will continue to drop if the DOC continues to follow those policies. However we still see these offenders committing new offenses into middle age and beyond.”
In addition to providing parolees with services once they are released, Dunnings said the most effective programs target children and education. Dunnings indicated that most criminals have similar backgrounds that include poverty, truancy, lack of education and drug addiction. Dunnings believes that if we can curtail truancy and keep children from dropping out of school we will have gone a long way toward addressing the problem of mass incarceration.
“The most effective law enforcement programs are the ones that provide young people with quality education, good jobs and a hope for the future,” stated Dunnings. “While I don’t believe that we can blame society for every criminal offense or every criminal’s behavior, I do think when you look at these criminal files, it’s impossible not to be struck by how many of these offenders share certain characteristics. They were often born into poverty, dropped out of school at an early age, had problems with substance abuse that oftentimes began because their parents themselves were substance abusers and that continued. They had juvenile criminal histories and they don’t get much punishment in the juvenile system and when they turn 17 they go to prison. … Most 17 year olds who commit crimes are not going to prison. But the ones that are there, I can assure you have earned the right to be there – they are threats to our community. … All too often it is the police, prosecutors, judges, parole and probation officers and ultimately the state prison system that is left to pick up the failed policies at the state and national level. … We have kids in the schools who are truant, they are not being forced to go to school. … According to NPR Morning Edition, elementary school truancy leads to crime. Schools can do more, they can be more aggressive about truancy … I believe if we can help a child succeed … we would go a long way to getting rid of any concern about mass incarceration.”
Stuart Dunnings III was elected Ingham County Prosecutor in 1996, becoming the second African American elected prosecutor in Michigan history and the first to serve in Ingham County. Mr. Dunnings is a graduate of Amherst College and received a Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School.
WMU-Cooley Professor Anthony Flores has been a part of the Ingham County legal community since January 1994, when he joined the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office. He has served as Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and Unit Chief in the Child Sexual Abuse, District Court, and Child Physical Abuse sections of the Prosecutor’s Office. At WMU-Cooley, he teaches Trial Skills Practice in the Advocacy & Litigation Skills Department, coaches the National Mock Trial Team, and is involved in the District Court Pilot Mediation Clinic.