Why End Earned Release for Nonviolent Offenders?
GOP votes for bloated, budget-busting corrections system
Last week the state Senate voted to end the state's Earned Release Program, which allows certain carefully screened, nonviolent prisoners to be released before their entire sentence has been served in prison. The Assembly was scheduled to take it up on Tuesday as the Shepherd went to press.
The program had been launched to chip away at the problems created by Truth in Sentencing, passed in 1997 as one of then-state Rep. Scott Walker's signature achievements. Truth in Sentencing mandated that offenders serve their entire sentence while incarcerated, eliminating offenders' ability to be paroled or earn credits for early release. When Truth in Sentencing was passed, the Walker-style lock-them-up approach was seen as a way to become politically popular by appearing "tough on crime." The price tag was an afterthought.
Unfortunately, Truth in Sentencing merely multiplied the state's prison population—and its cost. Wisconsin's prison population more than tripled from the early 1990s to the early 2000s and is currently around 24,000.
Lengthier sentences are one cause of the high prison population. Another is the high recidivism rate of offenders being sent back to prison. But a closer look at the data shows that offenders aren't being returned to prisons because they're committing new crimes. Rather, the returned offenders most likely are committing nonviolent rule violations while they're out on extended supervision in the community. Even worse, offenders aren't credited for time off if they do violate the terms of their release, which can greatly lengthen the time that they are incarcerated or supervised.
Like the prison population, the cost of Wisconsin's corrections system has similarly exploded. The price to the system is about $30,000 per prisoner per year. In 1999, the Department of Corrections' budget was $700 million. Now, it's $1.2 billion—and is projected to be $2.5 billion by 2019 if serious reforms are not enacted.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has been a major critic of Wisconsin's corrections operations, which he says eats up too much of the budget and therefore prevents the state from investing in programs that would help reduce and prevent crime in the first place. Chisholm said the entire system—especially if the state returns to a pure form of Truth in Sentencing—is unsustainable.
"Corrections is the third- or fourth-largest state expenditure every year," Chisholm said. "At the same time, you're cutting local aids. It means you're going to have to cut police officers, reduce school sizes and staffing, cut treatment programs and reduce aid for the mentally ill. In other words, at the same time you're ballooning the back end of the system, you're starving the front end of the system."
'It's Not Smart'
An attempt to rein in corrections costs was made in 2009, when the Democratic-led Legislature and then-Gov. Jim Doyle passed the Earned Release Program, intended to allow certain nonviolent prisoners to petition for early release if they'd behaved and attended therapeutic programs. Earned Release was a way to incentivize good behavior while reducing the cost of incarceration.
State Sen. Lena Taylor said the program was one component of a larger reform package—reforms vetoed by Doyle—that would have provided more treatment for offenders, specifically those with mental health issues or drug or alcohol addiction, as well as reduce costs and recidivism.
"There's a huge cost to the way we do corrections," Taylor said. "It's not smart, and it's tough on the taxpayer."
Even though Earned Release is a modest, scaled-back reform measure, it was the source of a huge misinformation campaign by "tough-on-crime" and allegedly fiscally conservative Republican legislators. It seems that the program couldn't be discussed without comments about "violent criminals" being returned to "our streets," even though those who were eligible for the program were nonviolent offenders who were granted early release by a state review board.
That misinformation campaign was echoed by the legislators who called for a repeal of the Earned Release Program this year.
State Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), who introduced the repeal bill in the state Assembly, told reporters, "We believe that criminals should be held accountable for their actions and we don't think it's smart to let murderers, child abusers, kidnappers, habitual drunk drivers and drug dealers any flack [sic] for the crimes they have committed." (Suder did not respond to the Shepherd's request to comment on his bill.)
Yet Suder's comments are wildly inaccurate. Murderers, child abusers and kidnappers are not eligible for early release. And criminals are being held accountable for their actions in the program by serving time in prison, attending classes and staying out of trouble while on extended supervision in the community. In fact, those released from prison early via this program are less likely to commit new crimes than those who have served their Truth in Sentencing time, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.
Republicans like Suder argue that the program hasn't saved the state significant money, but it could also be argued that the program never really got a chance to get off the ground.
And, as Sen. Taylor noted, Republicans are playing it both ways on the savings already created by the Earned Release Program. Gov. Scott Walker has used an Earned Release-reduced prison population to lower the corrections budget by $116 million over two years. At the same time, Republicans are killing off the program, which means that the corrections budget will be short in the coming years.
"We have to rethink Truth in Sentencing," Taylor said. "Or the cost is going to continue to bankrupt the state."
She noted that even conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist have begun championing reforms to reduce corrections costs and, in addition, advisers from that tough-on-crime state of Texas advised Wisconsin policy-makers on how to enact reform in a smart, fiscally sound way.
"It's time for conservatives to lead on reform," Taylor said.
Community Justice Is the Solution
It would be one thing if Wisconsin didn't know how to fix its corrections mess. But innovative reforms have been happening at the local level for a few years now. In fact, Milwaukee County is held up as a national model on how to lower crime, focus its prosecutorial efforts on truly dangerous criminals and get addicted or mentally unstable offenders the treatment they sorely need.
Much of that credit goes to District Attorney Chisholm, who with the help of the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council, has been able to reduce the numbers of criminal prosecutions in the county by almost 4,000 since 2007. Instead of treating all offenders the same, the district attorney's office uses evidence-based decision-making processes to screen offenders as they come into the system and steer them into the most appropriate program.
Violent offenders are sent to court and are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But nonviolent offenders—especially those with drug or alcohol problems or mental health issues—are likely to be sent to treatment or other programs. Some serve time as part of their punishment, while others are closely supervised while they work their way through their program.
The beauty of this system, Chisholm said, is that the decisions are made collectively with defense counsel, judges and other experts, and with the help of data indicating which punishment or program is most likely to change the offender's behavior.
Even better, Milwaukee County's model has saved the state about $45 million to $50 million thus far, Chisholm said. Unfortunately, the county isn't seeing any financial benefit from being so fiscally responsible. Chisholm has asked the state to return some of that money to the county for better treatment programs, crisis intervention, public health nurses and other services that would help to end the cycle of violence.
Chisholm said that this system gives communities local control over—and responsibility for—their nonviolent offenders instead of pushing the problems and the costs back on the state.
"This has nothing to do with being soft on crime," Chisholm said. "It's the exact opposite. I'm going to take responsibility for keeping Milwaukee safe. All I'm asking the state to do is recognize and reward us. Give us incentives. There are no incentives right now. The only incentive now from a political standpoint is to cave into this rhetoric and put as many people as you can into prison, even though the state knows it cannot afford it. That's not a responsible position to take."