TC Company Reforming Michigan Prison Populace

TRAVERSE CITY – A Traverse City consulting firm is quietly playing an instrumental role in reducing Michigan's prison population by 15 percent, enabling the cash-strapped state to close some 20 prison facilities.

"This is one of the most dramatic accomplishments in the history of corrections in the United States," says Dave Wells, CEO and founder of TC's Northpointe Institute for Public Management. "That's a big deal. We are taking these successes to other states, and it is very gratifying to help other states save money while actually improving public safety."

Founded in 1994, Northpointe serves more than 200 corrections-related clients across the country, including agencies in 55 of Michigan's 83 counties. In addition, the Michigan Department of Corrections utilizes Northpointe's COMPAS software in all prisons, parole and probation facilities and offices.

"Dr. Tim Brennan [one of Northpointe's principals] and I had been working in Michigan and elsewhere since 1989 on jail population crowding analyses, local criminal justice system planning, and inmate management strategies," says Wells. "We realized that criminal justice decision makers needed better tools to promote more efficient and cost-effective offender management. Northpointe was formed to build upon that early work. Our focus was on the research and development of software tools, technologies and practices that better inform criminal justice decision making."

Prior to founding Northpointe, Wells worked for several years with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments Criminal Justice Division in Traverse City. From the mid-1990s through 2007, he was under contract with the agency as the project manager for the seven-county region (consisting of Benzie, Manistee, Emmet, Charlevoix, Kalkaska, Wexford and Missaukee) administering Michigan's Community Corrections Act programs and services.

"Traverse City is a great place to live," says Wells. "And starting the business here made sense because of the quality of life and because we could attract a talented group of service and technology professionals from the area and state."

As the firm's consulting business expanded across the country, it established a western headquarters in Golden, Colorado, just outside Denver.

Northpointe offers experience in the science, practice and policy of criminal justice. The company helps criminal justice agencies make decisions that increase public safety while making the best use of taxpayer dollars.

An example: The company has developed a number of technology and software products, such as COMPAS. Agencies use these tools to assess the public safety risks posed by offenders entering the criminal justice system. As corrections professionals complete intake interviews with offenders, the systems compare the information against the cases of other offenders with similar characteristics. The systems then make recommendations about managing that offender based on what has been most successful in similar cases.

For example, the systems may provide information about risk classification and needed treatment during incarceration (i.e., which prisoners can safely be housed together and under what level of security, which prisoners require mental health care, etc.). As offenders exit the criminal justice system, the technology helps professionals develop case plans to ensure exiting prisoners get services they need to increase the likelihood that they will establish successful lives after incarceration, rather than re-offending.

Northpointe systems specifically address the general population, as well as women and juveniles. Research shows that women and juveniles have different risk profiles and treatment needs. The technology offers a scientific, research-based foundation for decision-making.

The company also provides planning and consulting services, including helping agencies develop effective performance measures, reduce costs in ways that don't compromise safety, and structure operations in ways that have proved most effective throughout the country. The company also provides training and implementation support to clients that adopt Northpointe's technology.

Key to Northpointe's success: The company offers public policy recommendations and encourages dialogue. For example, the company has launched the Center for Justice Innovation and Leadership, through which it partners with criminal justice agencies to share policy ideas, planning and implementation in the justice community.

Wells says Michigan politicians, starting with former Gov. John Engler, have become educated about what they are spending on prisons and asking tougher questions about what works.

"Gov. Engler emphasized community alternatives to prison under the Community Corrections Act, and prison admissions dropped," says Wells. "Michigan has saved hundreds of millions of dollars as a result, and we are recognized as a state that more or less sends the 'right' people to prison (meaning those who truly pose a risk to public safety).

"Gov. Granholm picked up that ball and ran with it under the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative. If the national reputation of Michigan is any indication, Gov. Granholm scored a touchdown with that initiative. Our success rate for former prisoners improved by more than 30 percent – from one out of every two prisoners succeeding on parole to two out of every three."

Much of that success is credited to the state adopting Northpointe's COMPAS system to help professionals in the criminal justice field make well-informed decisions and develop case plans that are appropriate for offenders as they transition back into the community.

As Gov. Snyder begins his term, what does the future hold for Michigan corrections?

"It is still too early to tell, but he has made some good initial decisions," says Dr. Brian Mattson, who was recently named Northpointe's President. "The budget he recommended recognized the success of both 'front-end' approaches to prison population control [under the Community Corrections Act] and 'back-end" approaches' [under the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative]. He did not recommend cuts to those programs. He wants to close another prison, so he is motivated to continue the successful work of his predecessors in controlling prison populations and preventing the cycle of prisoners exiting and then returning to the system.

"Gov. Snyder is focusing on metrics and measures of success, as well, which is a focus we share. He is also emphasizing the overall importance of working with the business community to find solutions to government problems. We hope he'll follow that approach in addressing criminal justice issues and reach out to private-sector companies such as ours. We have some very good ideas, we think, on how to continue to save money while protecting the public. We'd very much welcome an opportunity to have that discussion."

Michigan's problems are not unique, as the entire country suffers from revenue shortfalls, but that may give the state a leg up.

"Michigan experienced the effects of the current recession earlier and more severely than the rest of the nation, so we've been working on solutions longer," notes Mattson. "Michigan is unique in that we've been more successful than most states in controlling corrections spending. The numbers reported by the Michigan Department of Corrections demonstrate that success."

Northpointe is working with departments of corrections in 11 states, offering those clients the benefit of the company's experience in Michigan.

"We can share the policy advice that has worked here and offer them the technology they need to make better justice-related decisions and track performance," says Mattson. "We're working in states all over the country on improving the justice system at the front end and the back end, and those states see nearly immediate results. That proves our value, and, in this economic climate, the only spending that can be justified is that which produces results. We see an exciting role for Northpointe as the United States starts to end the mass era of incarceration, which has not only cost the taxpayers billions of dollars but also failed to make us much safer." BN