Alternatives to prison sought for non-violent offenders

by Bill Lueders Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Mary Stirling of Gays Mills recalls a young man she got to know some years back when he was an inmate at a county jail and she taught adult basic skills classes there. They met again after he spent some time in prison. She saw firsthand the difference it made.

“I was quite shocked at the change in him.” said Stirling, who still works with offenders through a nonprofit restorative justice group. “He just became slippery. He was hardened. He knew all the right things to say and not be touched by anybody.”

Such experiences have convinced Stirling of the wisdom of keeping low-risk, nonviolent criminals out of prison.

That’s why she supports Wisdom, a faith-based group with 10 chapters in Wisconsin. The group has set a lofty goal: to persuade the state Legislature to dramatically ramp up its investment in alternatives to incarceration.

“There’s a whole lot of people in our prisons who are not a danger to anybody, except maybe themselves,” says David Liners, Wisdom’s executive director.

Wisdom’s effort is known as the 11X15 Campaign for Justice. No, those aren’t the dimensions of an unusually spacious cell (the nationalaverageis6X8).It’sa strategy for reducing Wisconsin’s adult prison population to 11,000 by the year 2015. That’s half what it is now.

On March 14, Wisdom plans a massive convergence on the state Capitol. Its partners in this non-crime include the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, Madison-Area Urban Ministry, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Participants will meet for speeches and workshops in the morning, then march to the Capitol in the early afternoon. There they will break up into small groups, whenever possible including actual constituents, to visit the offices of every Wisconsin legislator.

Stirling, who plans to attend, hopes to meet with one or both of the lawmakers whose names appear on her ballots: Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Rep. Lee Nerison, R-Westby.

Wisdom also staged Capitol visits during budget deliberations in 2009 and 2011, when about 400 people took part. This time Liners expects 1,000 people.

The group contends that alternatives like day reporting centers, electronic monitoring and treatment courts for people with substance abuse and mental health problems have been proven to be not only cheaper but more effective. It’s asking the Legislature to add $75 million for such programs to the state’s upcoming two-year budget.

Liners says that’s how much is needed to fund programs in every county to serve all of the people who are eligible. He sees it as a smart investment, one that will pay for itself in just a few years, by allowing the state to close one of more of its existing prisons.

“If we had a lot of money, it would be easier,” Liners deadpans, reflecting on his group’s lack of lobby power and campaign clout. “But what we have is a whole lot of people. They’re people who understand that our criminal justice system has gone off track, and they’re angry about it.”

In 2011, for the first time, Wisconsin spent more on corrections than the University of Wisconsin System. The current corrections budget is nearly $1.3 billion a year.

“We really need our elected officials to understand that blind, lock-’em-up policies are not good politics anymore,” Liners says.

In fact, there are signs that Wisdom’s message is resonating where it matters most: among leg- islative Republicans.

State Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, a former Juneau County sheriff’s deputy, backs rehabilitative programs for nonviolent offenders as smarter and more fiscally sound. And Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, says he’s “open to exploring alternatives to incarceration in order to save taxpayer money as long as it doesn’t have an adverse impact on public safety.”

Now all the faith-driven proponents of this change need is a miracle.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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