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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Safer Streets, Fewer Prisoners

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Political courage appears to be contagious.

President Barack Obama’s bold budget takes on the most powerful forces in America by beginning to end three decades of reverse-Robin-Hood government taking from the poor and the middle class and giving to the rich. At the same time, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has the guts in his new budget to suggest we reverse decades of over-incarceration and begin releasing nonviolent offenders from prison before they can turn into violent offenders.

Previously, Doyle would have been considered an unlikely candidate to launch a drive for more rational incarceration policies. When Doyle was attorney general, he proposed the first “truth in sentencing” law in Wisconsin. Following a pattern set in other states, Doyle said offenders sentenced to prison should be required to serve at least 80% of their sentences before becoming eligible for release.

Republican Tommy Thompson was governor at the time. Because Thompson feared Doyle would run against him (and loathed Doyle besides), he felt he had to outdo Doyle on “truth in sentencing.” As a result, Wisconsin under Thompson passed one of the worst “truth in sentencing” laws in the nation. It required anyone sentenced to prison to serve every single day of his original sentence.

This was bad public policy for many reasons. Parole was never some kind of trick by criminals to get out of prison early. It was intelligent corrections policy to encourage offenders to behave better and participate in rehabilitation and treatment programs that would make it less likely they would offend again upon release.

The harsh incarceration policies of recent decades led to budget-busting prison building and elimination of treatment and rehabilitation programs that could reduce recidivism. Instead of making communities safer, incarceration made communities more dangerous. Thousands more ex-offenders were returning to poor neighborhoods worse than they were before, with the added burden of prison records to make it more difficult for them to find legitimate employment.

Pretending to Be Tough

The race to incarcerate has created financial problems for all 50 states. The crushing tax burden has forced many states to begin releasing nonviolent prisoners. In some states, courts ordered prisoners released because of inhumane overcrowding.

Doyle’s plan starts out extremely modestly. He estimated that only 500 to 1,000 nonviolent prisoners might be released over the first two years. But even that is far too many for politicians who make a living out of pretending to be tough on crime. They’re already painting absurd pictures of Wisconsin prisons throwing open their doors to release murderers and rapists to run amok terrorizing the citizenry.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who is gearing up to run for the Republican nomination for governor again, released a statement: “At a time when violent crime is going down in our state’s largest city, why would we want to put more criminals on the street?” Actually, when crime is down is exactly the right time to stop increasing incarceration and start reducing it.

For the most over-the-top commentary, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has created an online “blog” to keep people abreast of his insights on public issues. “I’m sick and tired of the word game being played by the governor and other criminal sympathizers where they use the term ‘nonviolent’ to refer to the prison population that he wants to release early,” Clarke wrote. “I’m here to tell you that there are very few nonviolent people in the state prison system. It’s not where we send all law violators; it’s where we send the worst of the worst.”

Just because the sheriff feels he was placed on Earth to tell us something doesn’t make it true. Three years ago, two outside consultants from Justice Strategies, a research organization, were brought in by two Republican legislators to determine how much money Wisconsin could save if it provided treatment instead of prison for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. At that time, Justice Strategies said there were 2,900 nonviolent, low-level drug offenders sitting in Wisconsin prisons. Many, they said, were first offenders who would not even be prosecuted in other states.

Those 2,900 nonviolent, low-level offenders, whom Clarke hasn’t heard about, cost Wisconsin taxpayers $83 million a year. You don’t have to be a “criminal sympathizer” to consider that $83 million a year a waste of the taxpayers’ money.

In fact, outside of Milwaukee County, law enforcement usually doesn’t waste money prosecuting these offenders. Of the 2,900 nonviolent drug offenders in prison, more were from Milwaukee—1,520—than from the other 71 counties of the state combined.

It would be nice if we stopped locking up so many nonviolent offenders just because it’s the right thing to do and it would make our cities safer. But even if we aren’t ready to start treating people more humanely, let’s do it to save money during these difficult economic times.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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