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Is It Time To End Mass Incarceration?

An issue on which both conservatives and liberals agree

May. 12, 2015
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In this time of deep political polarization, progressives and conservatives seem to agree on at least one important issue: It’s time to end mass incarceration.

The United States currently locks up 2.2 million people, a 500% increase in 30 years, according to the Sentencing Project, more than any other country in the world. 

This world-leading incarceration rate is the result of the decades-long War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies such as three strikes, the broken windows theory of policing and stop and frisk and, in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s signature achievement during his tenure in the state Assembly, the Truth in Sentencing law, which greatly extends the time inmates serve in prison.

But we may be reaching a tipping point at which those from all parts of the ideological spectrum realize that the era of mass incarceration must end—soon, if not now.

 

Rare Agreement from the Right and the Left

 

Nationally, conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, the Koch brothers and Watergate figure Chuck Colson have called for reforming the corrections system to reduce the prison population. In April, small-government advocate Grover Norquist briefed Wisconsin legislators on reducing mass incarceration on behalf of the national Right on Crime initiative. While there is a bit of a sense of social justice in their calls for reform, conservatives tend to focus on the ballooning corrections budgets as a reason for addressing mass incarceration. They’re simply unsustainable from a fiscal standpoint.

In Wisconsin, Republican state Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield and a bipartisan group of legislators have called for ending the practice of trying first-time, nonviolent 17 year olds in adult court and, instead, trying them in juvenile court. This is a very positive first step.

Although progressives have been calling for reform for years, even centrist Democrats are now seeing the error of tough-on-crime policies they’d once supported. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have called for reforming the system. The former president signed a 1994 bill that included the three strikes provision. Now, 20 years later, he told CNN that we’re locking up far too many people.

Also last week, The New Yorker profiled Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a moderate Democrat and career prosecutor, who’s retooled his office so that fewer low-level, nonviolent offenders are being sent to prison—especially those who are struggling with substance abuse or a mental health issue that wouldn’t be adequately addressed while incarcerated. The DA has also drastically reduced the number of charges for minor, nonviolent drug offenses, especially those involving possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia.

Chisholm’s prosecutors are now located throughout the community and have a closer connection to neighborhoods. Chisholm has changed the office’s charging decisions not only to reduce the prison population overall, but, after analyzing the data and realizing that something needed to change, to reduce the disturbing racial disparities in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system.

“I think Chisholm’s focus and direction is a major tectonic shift in how we understand criminal prosecution,” Stan Stojkovic, dean and professor at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, told the Shepherd.

 

Wisconsin Leads the Nation in Black Male Incarceration

 

Wisconsin taxpayers spend $1.2 billion annually on the Department of Corrections (DOC), more than is allocated to the University of Wisconsin System. Walker has proposed increasing the DOC’s budget by $57.4 million in 2015-2017, a 2.2% increase. 

According to 2014 figures, the state incarcerates 22,462 adult inmates, up from 2,000 in 1974, a 1,000% increase in the inmate population even though the state’s population as a whole only increased 24%, according to data compiled by WISDOM, a faith-based grassroots group that’s taken on the issue of mass incarceration in Wisconsin. That huge spike in the state’s incarceration rate is double the nation’s as a whole.

The cost of housing just one inmate for a year is about $30,000, but that spikes to $70,000 annually for an ill or aging prisoner, according to a Marquette Law Review study by Nicole M. Murphy.

The vast majority—94.5%—of Wisconsin’s inmates are male. Black men make up 43% of the male population in prison, although African American men and women together comprise a mere 6.1% of the state population as a whole. DOC statistics show that 68% of women in Wisconsin’s prisons are white while 25% are African American.

Shockingly, a report from the UW-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute identified Wisconsin’s extreme racial disparity in incarceration. UWM researchers Lois Quinn and John Pawasarat found that in 2010 Wisconsin had the highest rate in the nation of incarcerating African American men. The study found that 13% of working-age black men in Wisconsin have been incarcerated in state prisons or county jails, roughly double the national average of 6.7%. More than half of Milwaukee County’s black men in their 30s and 40s have been or currently are in prison, Quinn and Pawasarat found. And that has a huge impact on neighborhoods, family stability, employment and voting rights.

 

The Wisdom of Reducing Mass Incarceration

 

In Wisconsin, the loudest calls for incarceration reform seem to be coming from the faith community. WISDOM, a statewide coalition of faith congregations, has set a goal of halving the prison population by 2025, a tall order.

WISDOM Executive Director David Liners said he believed we’re at a tipping point with mass incarceration not only because taxpayers are seeing that the high cost isn’t resulting in a safer society, but because incarceration has hit so many homes beyond the central city.

“With the advent of problems with methamphetamine and later with heroin it hasn’t just been central city communities caught up in the incarceration that comes from the War on Drugs,” Liners told the Shepherd. “I think it’s opened people’s eyes to what’s been happening in the black community for years and years.”

He said the faith community has a naturally keen interest in mass incarceration.

“It really is a moral and spiritual issue,” he said. “It really is about punishment and redemption and forgiveness and who is in the community and who is not allowed to be in the community and what do we do with people when they run afoul of our expectations.”

WISDOM’s “11x15 Blueprint for Ending Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin,” found at prayforjusticeinwi.org, offers up a host of reforms that would not only save taxpayer money but are simply the humane and ethically enlightened thing to do. Now that Republican legislators are trying to make the governor’s crisis-driven state budget work in the real world, they may want to consider some of these revenue-saving reforms.

WISDOM’s priorities include:

■ Trade treatment for prison: Wisconsin’s Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) program, which sends people with mental health and addiction issues into treatment instead of prison or jail, has lowered recidivism rates and saved taxpayer money. In the first seven years of its existence in select counties, it’s saved about $9 million of taxpayer funds, more than the cost of the program. WISDOM wants this program to be expanded, with an additional annual $20 million in the next budget, which would save taxpayers at least $30 million in avoided prison costs.

■ Stop rule-breakers from re-entering prison: More than 4,000 new admissions to prison annually are former inmates who didn’t commit a new crime but broke a rule while out on supervision. Incarcerating these rule-breakers costs taxpayers $140 million per year. WISDOM calls for implementing a set of graduated sanctions that will keep rule violators out of prison.

 Address “old law” inmates: Inmates convicted prior to Walker’s Truth in Sentencing law are still eligible for parole. But few of these old law inmates are paroled and most get lost in the system. Old law prisoners cost more than $95 million per year. WISDOM calls for an immediate review of the more than 400 inmates who are eligible for parole, as well as the appointment of an ombudsman to keep track of old law inmates.

■ Release low-risk old and infirm inmates: Thanks to Walker’s Truth in Sentencing law, Wisconsin’s inmates are growing old while incarcerated at high cost to taxpayers—a “fiscal time bomb,” as WISDOM put it. The group is asking for compassionate release of older or seriously ill inmates, who have a very low risk of reoffending.

Liners said that Wisconsinites shouldn’t just accept mass incarceration as inevitable.

“This is not a force of nature,” Liners said. “The prison population didn’t grow like the grass. This is the result of decisions made every day by all kinds of people, from school administrators to police officers to legislators to judges to prosecutors to business owners. We need to deal with it as a problem that we created and a problem that we can fix. But it’s going to take a culture change. We’re going to get the incarceration system we demand.”

 

Transitioning Out of the System

 

In addition to keeping people out of jail and prison, Wisconsin could step up its assistance to those transitioning out of the system and into the community. The transitional jobs program has found great success, and Walker has increased funding for it in his proposed budget. But Wisconsin can do more to help ex-offenders obtain driver’s licenses, find work and not reoffend or violate a rule while out on supervision.

The state DOC can stop interfering with programs that are working well. One notable example is the ongoing conflict between the DOC and the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center Community Advisory Board. The board is a highly active advisor to the Chaney center, a minimum-security prison in the heart of Milwaukee that houses about 100 inmates with between six months and a year to serve on their sentences. The center was given its blessing from Chaney, a towering figure in the African American community, but only if its advisory board could actively participate in the center’s mission to rehabilitate and reintegrate its inmates into the community. The board’s heightened role is unique in the state—and effective.

The board had a few bumps along the way with both the DOC and previous superintendents, but its current superintendent, Michael Cockroft, got high marks from the board for his willingness to work with its advisors, who include attorneys, judges, the Milwaukee Police Department, the Sherman Park Community Association, Milwaukee state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff and former state Rep. Sandy Pasch and UWM’s Stojkovic.

“The board has made the Chaney center transform itself from being a warehouse to an institution that is top-notch in terms of enhanced reintegration and therefore reduced recidivism,” said attorney R.L. McNeely, the board’s chair.

But apparently the board was a little too successful—or perhaps too active for the DOC’s liking. The DOC informed the board in March that it must disband and discontinue its affiliation with the center. The Chaney center needed a community relations board, the DOC argued, which has much less influence over policy.

McNeely said he believes the conflict is due to the DOC’s refusal to provide data on recidivism rates at the center.

“They claim that we wouldn’t quite know what to do with [the recidivism data],” McNeely said. “What it really means is that we’re absolutely right that it has a very low recidivism rate. But they don’t want to have a community influence acknowledged as having been part of that.”

The board has revamped itself and is now the Felmers O. Chaney Community Advocacy Board. McNeely said it will advocate for issues, reduce incarceration and improve recidivism rates, but that it won’t have the same sort of influence over the center that Chaney himself wanted.

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Rolling back Barack Obama’s reforms, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest sentences for drug offenses. Is it bad policy to fill the prison system with nonviolent offenders?

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