On Reforming Our Criminal Justice System

“Wisconsin’s prison population has more than tripled since 1990. Our state has the worst racial disparities in the nation – we incarcerate a higher percentage of African American males than does any other state. We incarcerate twice as many people as our neighbor, Minnesota, which has similar demographics, but we are no safer for it. Our system needs comprehensive reform to ensure that justice is done, taxpayer dollars are used responsibly, and public safety is served.”

Incarceration is very expensive and comes with additional social and economic costs, including the effects on children, families, and communities. Parental incarceration and the disruption of family relationships can produce negative outcomes for children, including poverty, poor academic performance, aggression, depression, delinquency, and substance abuse. The rate of parenthood among incarcerated people is roughly the same as the rate in the general population: meaning 50 percent to 75 percent of incarcerated individuals have at least one child. In addition, incarceration operates as a “life sentence” in terms of ability to access employment, housing, and educational opportunities – making it much harder for people to successfully reintegrate. We are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars each year, warehousing people without adequate rehabilitation, and destroying human potential for those incarcerated and their families and communities.

Criminal Justice reform: The cost of keeping one person in prison in Wisconsin for one year, according to the state Department of Corrections, is close to $30,000. In Wisconsin, we have more than 23,000 people locked up in prisons that were only built to accommodate 17,000. Wisconsin spent $1.2 billion on corrections in 2017—more state tax dollars than we spent for almost any other purpose.

According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, our state spends more on corrections than the national average and more than all of our neighboring states spend—Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. Are Wisconsinites really two to three times more criminal than other midwesterners? I don’t think so. Are we getting our money’s worth in terms of public safety? Not according to the numbers. Are we throwing our money away on a failed system that disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income children? Yes. It’s time for Wisconsin to join the many states who are getting smart on criminal justice reform – making communities safer and using tax dollars responsibly.  

Reform Wisconsin’s sentencing laws. Inordinately long prison sentences do nothing to enhance safety, but they greatly increase budgetary costs and make it less likely that those incarcerated will be successfully re-integrated back into the community when they are released. So-called “Truth in Sentencing” rules also make prisons less safe, because the elimination of “good time,” where incarcerated people can earn early release for excellent behavior, takes away an important behavior management tool for correctional officers.

End most crimeless revocations. The largest number of people entering Wisconsin prisons are actually ex-offenders who have already served their full sentences – instead, they are people who are re-incarcerated because they committed a minor or technical violation of the conditions of their parole. These minor infractions include things like missing an appointment with their parole officer or breaking curfew, traveling outside of their home county, refusing to take a prescribed medication, or consuming alcohol. In some cases, people have been re-incarcerated due to malfunctioning GPS bracelets, according to reports compiled by WISDOM/EXPO. About 4,000 prison admissions each year are people who have not been convicted of a new crime, and according to UW Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver, “It costs an average of $47,500 for each crimeless revocation reentry after the first spell in prison.” In fact, because some extended supervision periods are so long, some people end up serving more time behind bars due to crimeless revocation than they were originally sentenced to serve for their actual crime. There is also evidence from states like Washington and Louisiana that reducing crimeless revocations improves public safety and decreases recidivism.

Release those eligible for parole. Wisconsin has nearly 3,000 people in its prisons who have long been eligible to be released on parole. Several hundred of them are already out on work release. Yet for the past several years, the parole board has very rarely granted any requests for release. Those who are eligible for parole according to their sentences deserve a fair chance to make their case to earn their release. Additionally, many of the aging and ill people in our prisons could very safely be released to their families or community facilities for their final days, while saving the state the extraordinary cost of caring for these individuals.

Criminalizing substance use disorder without treatment doesn’t work. Thousands of Wisconsinites are incarcerated because of substance abuse-related crimes, yet, according to a recent report in the Shepherd Express, many individuals do not receive pre-trial diversion to Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) or mental health treatment. Instead, they are simply sentenced to prison instead, where they may wait years to receive drug treatment and counseling, even when they are required by court order to receive it, because there are so few treatment slots. As reported in the Shepherd Express, “The Earned Release Program is a treatment program for AODA with steep requirements. The sentencing judge has to determine that a person should participate, and the person can’t have a violent offense. Nonetheless, there are 5,900 people on the waiting list in prison who are eligible to participate.” People with substance use disorder need treatment – and the longer it takes to receive it the more challenging and costly it becomes. Providing real treatment for substance use disorder – even many times – is far less costly than incarceration, and far more likely to protect the public from criminal behavior in the many cases where appropriate.

Increase funding for Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD). A 2012 study by Restoring Our Communities showed that fully funding Wisconsin’s Treatment Alternatives and Diversions programs, we “could keep 3,000 people per year out of the state’s prisons, and more than 27,000 from ever going to jail.” Many with substance use disorder work and help support their families, so treatment allows them to continue productive employment and maintain family and community ties that are so critical for recovery.

Restore civic, economic, and community participation and pass automatic expungement reform. Too often, a conviction follows people for life, making it harder for them to succeed after serving their time. We need expungement reform to allow people a true second chance. Voting is the backbone of our democracy. Currently, if you are not eligible to vote in Wisconsin if you have been convicted of a felony and are currently serving any portion of your sentence (including extended supervision, probation, or parole, also known as being “on paper”). This can mean decades of disenfranchisement. Wisconsin also has a lifetime ban on running for any elected office. In addition, many restrictions over the years have made it difficult for people convicted of crimes to keep or earn state regulated professional licenses – from installing insulation to becoming a barber/cosmetologist. Anyone with a felony conviction is also prohibited from obtaining a deer hunting license, regardless of whether their offense was accounting fraud or a violent crime. By blanket-denying people who have served their time a chance to participate in civic, employment, and community activities, we make it harder for them to reintegrate into our society. While some prohibitions may be appropriate (for instance, prohibiting former elected officials convicted of bribery from holding future public office, or preventing someone convicted of domestic violence from becoming a police officer), these should be decided on a case by case basis.

Support meaningful re-integration after incarceration. When people come out of prison, if they have access to stable housing and employment and healthcare (especially for behavioral health needs), they are far less likely to reoffend. We must empower parole officers to facilitate successful reentry, not focus on punitive approaches that seek to re-incarcerate people. This means removing prohibitions on ex-offenders receiving financial aid for education, housing support, and other assistance, and enforcing our prohibitions against discrimination. The punishment for a crime is incarceration – losing one’s freedom. It shouldn’t mean preventing people from every getting stable housing or employment for life.

Prevent abuse during incarceration. Unfortunately, many incarcerated persons are subject to violence in prison, from beatings to sexual assault. Juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities are especially prone to victimization. We must restore programming to prisons, from library access to educational opportunities to counseling to worker training and employment, so that prisoners are serving their time productively, are less able to engage in misconduct, and will be better prepared for re-entry. We must also greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement, and especially for children and those suffering from mental illness. Other states are moving away from solitary confinement and other extremely punitive and unproductive incarceration measures.

Reform our juvenile justice system. No child should be tried as an adult or placed in adult prison. The more we learn about the brain development of adolescents and young adults, the less justifiable it is to treat 17-year-olds the same way we treat 30-year-olds. Executive function and the ability to weigh long-term consequences of decisions doesn’t even fully develop until one’s mid-20s, so our focus with young offenders should always be on rehabilitation. Many young offenders struggle with a lifetime of trauma and few resources – financial or familial – to help them cope. Youth literacy rates are low, and child and sexual abuse rates are high among children who offend. We must reverse this rather than exacerbate it. I support closing the unsafe facilities of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, but rather than build several new mini-prisons, Wisconsin should follow evidence-based best practices for youth rehabilitation, creating small (6-8 person) residential facilities with trained, intensive staffing, and for the most troubled youth, a professional foster care model that has shown to be the most effective at achieving public safety.

Make it part of Wisconsin’s mission to end racial disparities. From top to bottom, we must change our criminal justice system to reduce the systemic racial disparities that plague our state. We must start by collecting and making widely available data on charging, bail, plea, and sentencing decisions to law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and other decision-makers on the front end of the criminal justice system, as well as on the back end, to the parole and pardon boards, parole officers, and DOC officials. Other states have successfully reduced their racial disparities, and Wisconsin should follow their lead by making this a priority for all parts of our criminal justice system.

Pardon all low-level marijuana offenders. We should not use our scarce criminal justice resources to lock up adults who simply used cannabis but have committed no other crimes. Cannabis is legal in many states and should be in Wisconsin as well — no one should be in prison or jail simply for using cannabis. We must also reexamine those with multiple convictions that may be serving harsher or longer sentences for other crimes due to marijuana use convictions bring their sentences in line with what they would be if their marijuana convictions had not existed.

Safe and fair working conditions for corrections staff. Department of Corrections staff often face difficult working conditions due to attacks on workers rights. Corrections workers face lower pay than in neighboring states, which has contributed to a severe staffing shortage in the department. This has resulted in staff working mandatory overtime hours, which makes them less safe, costs our state, and makes the prison population vulnerable. We must pay our corrections workers, and all public, employees a fair wage and allow them to bargain for better working conditions. This will solve our staffing shortage crisis and help keep workers and inmates safe.