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Fear of Minor Offenders

Mar. 3, 2010
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Shrinking budgets have forced states around the country to finally stop wasting taxpayer money by imprisoning nonviolent offenders and turning small-time lawbreakers into hardened, more dangerous criminals.

It’s one of the few examples where government could spend less money and actually benefit more people and increase public safety.

By reserving prison for violent criminals who need to be separated from society, far cheaper programs of drug and alcohol treatment, job training and education can turn low-level offenders into productive citizens and reduce crime.

Unfortunately, many in Wisconsin do not appear ready to take such an intelligent approach.

An extremely modest attempt at an early release program for nonviolent offenders by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections already is under attack by the media and Milwaukee-area public officials.

Is it because any major crimes have been committed by anyone who received early release? Not at all.

Inflammatory media coverage does not require any actual, major problems with an early release program. It’s enough just to play on the public’s fear of crime and suggest the possibility that problems could one day occur.

That’s the only way to explain a front-page Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story headlined: “State Gave Repeat Offenders Early Prison Releases.”

The article led with one of the first 30 offenders from Milwaukee who was released early. The man got out about a month early. Wow. Nearly four weeks before his sentence was up, a minor offender was walking our streets.

Within about a month, however, the man was back in prison for violating the terms of his probation. The Journal Sentinel didn’t even know what the violation was. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to bring any new charges.

The only other alleged violation the Journal Sentinel could find was by someone who got out about two months early. In his case, there was really no violation at all.

The man was arrested and put in jail because his GPS-linked ankle bracelet indicated he’d returned home after his curfew. The next day, however, the man was released again after Milwaukee police confirmed he’d returned home late because he’d been working overtime.

To Help or to Hurt?

The newspaper’s overblown reporting of a single, minor violation and a completely unwarranted re-incarceration does serve one useful purpose: It illustrates the serious problem of trigger-happy probation officers sending people back to prison for totally insignificant offenses.

There was a time when the job of a probation agent was to help those who’d been incarcerated succeed on the outside. Probation agents helped connect those who were released to jobs, drug and alcohol treatment and community support groups that could help prevent former offenders from returning to a life of crime.

These days, many people may be surprised to learn that more than half of the people who go to prison every year in Wisconsin haven’t committed crimes. They’ve committed technical violations of the terms of their probation, parole or extended supervision.

Pamela Oliver, a professor of sociology at UW-Madison, has documented how the job of the parole agent evolved during the 1990s from social work to assist parolees into just another form of lock-’em-up policing.

In 1990, Oliver notes, only about 30% of those entering prison were solely probation and parole violators. About 50% had committed new crimes and 20% had a combination of new crimes and rule violations.

By 1999, Oliver says, those figures were reversed. Only 35% were being sentenced for new crimes. Another 15% were a combination of new crimes and parole violations and fully 50% of those entering prison were solely probation or parole violators.

Someone can violate parole simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Staying out past curfew is a good example. Do we really want to imprison adults for something we have trouble getting teenagers to obey?

Associating with former felons is a parole violation that is very difficult to avoid in many poor neighborhoods. Drug and alcohol use are also common parole violations. Drug and alcohol treatment would be a lot cheaper and more effective than prison.

People leaving prison receive pages of single-spaced requirements that would be very difficult for anyone to follow to the letter. An offender on extended supervision for a sex crime was required to get permission from his parole officer to masturbate.

Gov. Jim Doyle originally proposed an extremely limited early release program and then ended up watering down his own program further with budget vetoes.

Neither Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett nor County Executive Scott Walker, the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, appear to have enough political courage to advocate reducing Wisconsin’s financially wasteful over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders.

Even a Republican governor in California who once played a killer cyborg from the future is far more progressive on this issue than Wisconsin’s so-called political leaders.


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