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More Money for Prisons than Colleges?

Jun. 27, 2017
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The sheer size of Wisconsin’s swelling prison population—and the weight in public money that’s needed to support it—have recently begun to pull Democrats and Republicans closer in agreement on how to address it.

Forecasts predict Wisconsin will break its prison population record of 23,184 (set in 2007) sometime by 2019. And Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2017-’19 state budget includes a 2.6% spending increase on the Department of Corrections, bringing its funding total to $2.2 billion over the next two years—a figure that tops what is earmarked for the University of Wisconsin System.

Although broad, revolutionary reform still feels miles away, the situation has gotten to the point where the “tough on crime” sentiment is perhaps fading just a bit. Walker himself, who scaled back an earned release program in 2011, included in his budget a proposal that could help hundreds of substance-abusing inmates achieve early release. He’s accompanied by another Republican, Rep. Michael Schraa, of Oshkosh and prominent Democratic legislator and attorney Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, who have voiced similar ideas.

“The convergence [of ideas for a solution] comes from different perspectives,” said Dennis Dresang, political science professor emeritus at UW-Madison. “For Republicans, it’s primarily recognizing that prisons are really a budget buster, and they are just so expensive to operate. For the liberals or Democrats, it’s kind of a longstanding issue of going overboard on being tough on crime.”


Prison Population Climbing Again

Like the rest of the nation, Wisconsin’s prison population ballooned in the ’90s before slowing in the ’00s. From 2008-2012, the population was on a downward trajectory. But Wisconsin’s numbers began climbing again in 2013 for a range of reasons. According to a report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance:

• The state’s violent crime rate is increasing, contrary to the national rate.

• Prisoners are serving longer sentences now than in the past—perhaps because more violent offenses are being committed, as well as new, longer mandatory sentences for drunk driving and other offenses.

• There is an increase in revocations—prisoners returning behind bars for violating the terms of their conditional release—which, 78% of the time, does not result in new charges.

• Wisconsin’s “Truth in Sentencing” law, passed in 1998, which narrowed the chances of early release for prisoners and allowed them to be re-incarcerated for longer periods of time upon violating terms of their extended supervision.

• There were 23,117 prisoners in Wisconsin as of June 9—just 67 people below the record set 10 years ago. The state’s 37 correctional institutions were originally designed to hold only 16,371, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

“We are at what I think should be correctly labeled a crisis,” said Goyke, who sits on assembly committees for public safety and corrections. “If we don’t come together to address it, we’re going to see poorer outcomes and increased budgets and costs, and we’re all going to pay for it.”

There is still, of course, some hesitation, at least publicly, among Republicans to embrace these kinds of early release programs, just as there is still an appetite for legislation that some might interpret as “tough on crime.”

Nine out of 10 Republicans who sit on the Assembly Committee on Corrections (including Schraa) and the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety either did not return requests for comment or declined comment for this story. The one who did, Rep. Bob Gannon of West Bend, said he still thinks interest in these programs is on the rise in his party.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said treatment programs play an “essential” role in the justice system, but the ones already in place in Wisconsin are too lenient and have become a burden on local law enforcement. He said the kind of offenders who receive those treatments and then reoffend are part of the reason why he and Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) authored a package of bills that, among other things, would toughen penalties for repeat violent offenses and expand the number of crimes a juvenile could be placed in a youth prison. “We are not doing a good job distinguishing between the people that deserve to go into a rehabilitative or alternative program,” Sanfelippo added.

But, according to a 2014 report by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the state’s treatment alternatives and diversion projects have been successful. Between 2007 and 2013, about 3,100 people were admitted to these programs, with two-thirds completing them. Among the results:

• A total of 231,533 days of incarceration were averted.

• 39% of participants were convicted of a new crime within three years of discharge, besting the national three-year rate of 45%.

• Despite the fact that 39% were convicted of a new crime, only approximately 10% were admitted to state prison for a new offense or revocation within three years of discharge.

• 17% of discharges, within three years, were convicted and sentenced to either probation supervision or state prison.

• A cost-benefit analysis found that for every $1 invested in these programs, it yields benefits of $1.96 to the criminal justice system through averted incarceration and reduced crime.

As good as that sounds, though, it’s not helping very many people. Walker’s proposal would allow another 250 inmates a year an opportunity to receive treatment for substance abuse and achieve early release. Schraa, the Republican from Oshkosh, and Goyke have also publicly discussed an interest in creating an alcohol treatment facility for more early releases.

Those ideas would help just a couple hundred inmates a year, and only the ones with substance abuse issues. A report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance concluded that, if you want to make significant cost reductions to the state’s Department of Corrections, you would have to achieve the closing of an entire prison wing, for example, which would require large-scale declines in the prison population.

Goyke also wants there to be similar programs for violent offenders with mental health issues. But for now, that appears to be a much harder sell for Republicans.

“I’ve seen largely a reluctance to expand that type of thinking and mindset and model to a broader set of inmates,” Goyke said of the state’s majority party. “We’re willing to do a treatment court for someone that’s on opiate addict, for example—and maybe their addiction stems from some traumatic experience that happened when they were 6 years old. But we’re not willing to see the same-aged person who is not addicted to opiates but has acted out based on similar trauma; their crime is a different crime and we don’t apply that same kind of addressing-root-causes, crime-solving mindset.”

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