As Others See It

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER “Lock-em-up” policies called ineffective budget busters
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Early in his political career, Scott Walker championed a tough approach to crime including minimum mandatory prison terms.

It was part of a “tough-oncrime” philosophy that swept through the United States in the 1990s. The approach especially targeted drug crimes. Tough criminal sentences were sold to the public as a way to discourage potential drug dealers and users.

Two things seem certain. Drugrelated crimes have not been eliminated and the use of heroin has dramatically increased among white young people. Reports of significant drug use have surfaced in western Wisconsin.

The “lock-‘em-up” answer also is very, very expensive. It costs the state about $32,000 per year to incarcerate a felon, and prison populations have increased by 9 percent since 2000. The minimum mandatory sentences were labeled “truth in sentencing.” Wisconsin has one of highest percentages of black male populations in prison.

The state’s prison budget last year was $1.17 billion, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That’s a big number in a state facing difficult budget choices.

In January, the state’s revenue estimates were reduced by nearly $500 million. Legislators are expected to get new revenue numbers early next month.

Several weeks ago, one of America’ chief tax critics came to Madison to urge leaders to take another look at the state’s approach to crime and punishment.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes all tax increases, said Texas has made changes in its policies, and more importantly, voters have not punished politicians there for making reforms that reduced incarceration totals.

“The sense that it is some kind of weakening or becoming soft on crime (is) not what it is,” Norquist said.

Truth-in-sentencing and minimum mandatory sentences have caused the soaring prison populations and costs, he said bluntly. He blamed legislators for passing those kind of laws to get favorable editorials and public support.

The new laws created a prison boom, and Wisconsin was renting space in for-profit facilities outside of Wisconsin.

Correctional facilities have been built in various parts of the state, often making the prisons the biggest employer in many of the small towns. Their payrolls often are based on the number of inmates there.

Norquist urged a review of how paroles are determined and how parole revocations are implemented. Earning a high school diploma or learning to read could factor into those decisions. They may be as important as just using good behavior to make decisions, he indicated.

Reporters remembered Walker as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly and his role as a legislative leader in the 1990s when the state enacted the “truth-in-sentencing” laws. His office declined to comment on Norquist’s remarks at the State Capitol.

Walker has declined to issue any pardons during his five years as governor of Wisconsin, He says that pardons could undermine the state’s judicial system. It is a safe political position. Victims of crime often are absolutely opposed to easing the penalties on the felons who had affected them.

Some might suggest that Walker will change his position on crime as he runs for president of the United States. He already has shifted his views on immigration, standards for measuring elementary and secondary school success, and ethanol fuel requirements.

Then there is the apparent budget crunch facing state government. Walker wants to cut $300 million from the support of the University of Wisconsin system and $127 million from the state aid to public schools.

Government is always a matter of priorities. Norquist’s comments could add another aspect to the public debate.

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