“Good Time Makes Good Sense” initiative could reduce Michigan’s lengthy prison sentences

With truth in sentencing in place and no Good Time credit system, Michigan residents get locked up for longer, on average, than anyone else in the country. 

When people think of Michigan they think about the Great Lakes, which allow the state to outrank all others in freshwater supply. However, a lesser known fact is that Michigan outranks all other states in another category: length of time served in prison. People incarcerated in Michigan serve longer prison sentences on average than anyone else in the country. 


Why is that? Michigan is one of only six states that does not have a Good Time credit system, a system that awards inmates with time off their sentence for good behavior. Some state credit systems are based on good behavior (Good Time), some are credits earned by completing a specific task, like participating in a class, job, or program.


“There are many states in the country that have one or the other and there are a number that have both; Michigan has neither,” said Mariah LeRolland-Wagner, executive director of Michigan Justice Advocacy (MJA). 


Michigan also has truth in sentencing, meaning incarcerated individuals must serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence before they can be considered for parole. A hundred percent is the minimum, but Michiganders on average serve 126 percent of their prison sentences. 


“Those other five states that join us in the category of ‘no credits,’ they do not require 100 percent truth in sentencing,” LeRolland-Wagner said.


With truth in sentencing in place and no Good Time credit system, Michigan residents get locked up for longer than anyone else. 


“We have created this environment in prisons where there is no incentive, there are no rewards; we just punish people,” LeRolland-Wagner said.


Michigan Justice Advocacy proposed the “Good Time Makes Good Sense” initiative, to bring Michigan’s criminal justice back in-line with the rest of the country. MJA is proposing a 30-day Good Time credit for every 30 days served without a Class I Misconduct. This time would be deducted from both maximum and minimum sentences, and would be applied retroactively if adopted. 


MJA will be submitting a draft of their initiative to the State government in September, where it will be sent to a committee to decide if it should be sent to the House/Senate floor for a vote. If this avenue fails, Good Time will become a ballot initiative. 


Until that time, MJA is educating Michigan residents on why they believe Good Time is what Michigan needs. 


Implementing a Good Time credit system makes a lot of sense economically, according to MJA. Michigan spends more than any other state on corrections; $2.3 billion a year to house 33,000 incarcerated persons. It costs $45,000 a year to incarcerate one person, and $4,000 a year to have someone on parole. 


“We have the largest corrections budgets nationally, and we are no safer than some of the safest states in the US that probably have half that budget,” said Rich Griffin, campaign director at Michigan Justice Advocacy.


According to MJA, if Michigan implemented this system today it would take five years to save $1 billion, and 50 percent of incarcerated people would be eligible for release. 


MJA says Good Time will make Michigan a safer place to live. Other states that have initiated a Good Time credit have seen rates of recidivism drop. Both Washington and New York saw lower rates of recidivism after adopting Good Time credits. 


Good Time credits will lower maximum and minimum sentences. Lowering minimum sentences will allow incarcerated persons to appear before the parole board sooner. This is safer because once the maximum sentence is reached, the individual is released without any parole supervision.


“Parole functions as a gate-keeper,” LeRolland-Wagner said. “If someone maxes out, they are cut without support or resources to make sure they have a helpful transition.”


Not only does Good Time decrease prison sentences, LeRolland-Wagner says, but it also makes the prison environment safer for incarcerated persons and officers. For this reason, the Correction Officers Union supports Good Time credits. 


“The work environment right now is a rough environment,” LeRolland-Wagner said. “There is no incentive for people to be good and follow the rules and policies.”  


If there are so many rewards to having a Good Time credit system, then why is Michigan one of the last holdouts? 


Michigan had a Good Time credit system for over 100 years. This system existed until 1978, after ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric began. 


“A lot of policies on a state level over the last 30 years, and presidential elections fed the narrative of being tough on crime,” Griffin said. 


States began cracking down on crime starting in the 70’s; increasing prison sentences and doing away with policy that allowed inmates to return to society sooner. 


In 1978, Michigan took away its Good Time credits for violent crimes. This impacted 80 categories of crime. 


“In the 80s there were riots at different facilities because no one was being rewarded anymore,” LeRolland-Wagner said.


Good Time credits continued to be stripped away until 1998, when truth in sentencing passed, and Good Time no longer existed in Michigan prisons.


Graph of credits in Michigan's prison system

However, Good Time still exists in Michigan in different forms. Sentences served in Michigan jails get automatic Good Time credit. People serving time in a county jail receive one day of credit for every four served. Michigan also offers Good Time to individuals on parole/probation. If the first half of parole is completed without incident, the second half is automatically discharged. 


“Right now in our own state we are doing 50 percent (Good Time credit) for probation and parole, and we are doing 20 percent or 25 percent in our county facilities. So Good Time isn’t something crazy that hasn’t happened before,” LeRolland-Wagner said.


MJA says many try to argue against implementing Good Time credit by bringing up victim’s rights. However, 61 percent of crime victims support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation, according to a study by the Alliance for Safety and Justice. 


“Everyone claims to be concerned about victim’s rights. The truth of the matter is… once sentencing has occurred, the only right a victim has is to receive a written letter of notification when an offender is scheduled for a parole hearing,” LeRolland-Wagner said. “They use this victim argument but don't actually put the weight and care to actually help victims to heal and move forward.”


All previous bill iterations proposing Good Time credits have died in the chamber, without even making it to a vote on the Senate/House floor. Griffin thinks this is the case because of the culture surrounding criminal justice. 


“We haven't changed the culture for how we manage people who live in poverty. Crime isn’t driven by a criminal mind, most of the crime that we see in our society is poverty driven. I think that the narrative is so opposed to crime because we see it from a criminality perspective and not from a poverty perspective,” Griffin said.


Poverty isn’t the only factor leading to incarceration. According to LeRolland-Wagner, many individuals who are currently incarcerated struggle with addiction or mental illness. Today, there are a number of services to help people dealing with addiction or mental illness that weren’t available a few decades ago. LeRolland-Wagner says some crimes that happened in the 80's, 90’s or early 2000’s might not have led to incarceration if it had been committed today. 


“We are holding people accountable for something, for up to 30 years, when really all they needed was a year in a treatment facility to help address their underlying mental health or substance abuse issues,” LeRolland-Wagner said. “They could be in society right now, home with their family.”


Another barrier to Good Time is the business-like nature of the prison system. The State Department of Corrections is the largest state-run business in Michigan. It employs nearly 12,000 people and has 29 facilities in the state. 


These facilities are located in rural communities and provide a primary source of revenue. 


Inside these facilities, Griffin says inmates provide sources of cheap labor for outside corporations. 


“You name it, the Department of Corrections has inmates making materials that are used by companies in society,” Griffin said.


You can support the “Good Time Makes Good Sense” Initiative by signing Michigan Justice Advocacy’s petition at this link.


Contact your State Representative and Senator to let them know your thoughts on this initiative.


Raine Kuch Community Documenter/Journalist