I was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2016 and from the day I took office, I heard a lot about criminal justice reform: the need to allow for pardons and expunge low-offense criminal records; the need to move 17-year-olds back to juvenile court; and the need to improve conditions at Lincoln Hills School, a juvenile corrections facility in Northern Wisconsin. Since then, little action has been taken.
Of all your tax dollars that Wisconsin collects, 7 percent go to locking up offenders. By comparison, 6 percent of your tax dollars go to the University of Wisconsin System. Do we really want to spend more money on prisons than on universities? My answer is no.
The Legislative Audit Bureau reports that between 2011 and 2019, the Wisconsin prison population grew from 21,941 to 23,675, an increase of 7.9 percent. When the covid pandemic hit, the Department of Corrections began to refuse admission to inmates from county jails; halted almost all probation and parole revocations; and moved up release dates when possible. As a result, the Wisconsin prison population declined by almost 1,600 inmates.
Without any change to existing law, projections from the consulting firm Mead/Hunt estimate the state could have 28,000 inmates in 10 years. Historical growth rates support the likelihood of increasing prison population that will further stress an already overcrowded system.
Wisconsin cannot afford to continue the course its criminal justice system is on. Nearly threequarters of Wisconsin voters support reforming the state’s expungement law to grant eligibility after the completion of a sentence. Currently, Wisconsin’s expungement law is that judges must determine an individual’s eligibility when little to no information is available about rehabilitation.
In his budget proposal, Governor Evers calls for an additional $15 million for Treatment Alternatives and Diversion. These programs currently provide treatment options as an alternative to incarceration for individuals in 53 counties.
Studies show 56 percent of program participants successfully completed treatment, avoided incarceration, and were less likely to re-offend. It is estimated for every dollar spent on alternatives to incarceration, the state saved $4.17 in reduced prison and court costs.
Drug offenses made up 20 percent of new admissions to Wisconsin prison in 2018. This is why we need to expand not only treatment alternatives but also the Earned Release Program as a way to reduce costs of incarceration. Expanding the program will provide a release valve allowing those who successfully complete the six-month program to receive specialized treatment for their addictions and have a better chance at not re-offending.
Currently, Wisconsin is one of only three states that automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Under the law, when a 17-year-old is charged with committing an egregious offense, he or she is automatically put into the adult corrections system. Gov. Evers’ budget proposal would restore prior law so that 17-year-olds are put into the juvenile justice system, where they have access to all of the rehabilitative programs and services available in the juvenile justice system.
By locking up fewer people and getting people the mental health services they need, we can reduce the cost to taxpayers. As a Legislature, we need to find compromise and address these problems sooner than later.