The idea is driven in part by a desire to reduce the state Department of Corrections budget, which exceeds $2 billion. A state sentencing guidelines study was launched last month by the bipartisan Michigan Law Review Commission.
"Society has changed its views on a number of criminal justice issues," said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, who heads the House Appropriations Committee. "Being 'tough on crime' above all other concerns simply hasn't created a safer society."
Corrections Director Dan Heyns has advocated for a review of state sentencing guidelines. He endorsed the review, which likely will take about 18 months.
The Law Review Commission, headed by Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, plans to take a broad, data-driven look at what the state can do to lower prison spending and reduce recidivism rates. Appropriateness of prison sentences will be a key part of the commission's work.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, is among those who will be hard to persuade that Michigan needs to let more offenders out of prison earlier.
"I'm willing to look at it," said Jones, a former sheriff who is head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But in my experience, most of the inmates at Michigan prisons are pretty dangerous."
The Corrections Department already has made cost-cutting moves, but spokesman Russ Marlan said that's offset by rising wage-and-benefit expenses, driven especially by a corrections workers reaching retirement under old health coverage and defined-benefit pension plans.
"We've said the budget could have been $2.9 billion without (cost cutting), but that doesn't seem to impress the Legislature," he said.
A 2012 national Pew Charitable Trusts study found that Michigan's sentences or time served were 79 percent longer than in 1990. Changes were approved by state lawmakers in 1998, and the study says that added about $472 million to Michigan's annual prison costs.
Michigan's current guidelines, which were drawn up by a sentencing commission after an inquiry spanning several years, were approved by a Legislature reacting to violence associated with crack cocaine, high-profile serial killings and serious crimes by parolees.