Non-violent crimes, parole violations filling state prisons

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Soaring prison and correction costs have been pinching other budget priorities in Wisconsin, creating difficult choices for government officials.

Figures for a decade show inflation-adjusted spending is up 7 percent for the corrections system. Meanwhile, state support for elementary and secondary education is down 14 percent and taxpayer support for the University of Wisconsin System is down 21 percent. Both numbers also include the impact of inflation.

The figures come from a report of the non-partisan Wisconsin Budget Project which is supported by the Council on Children and Families.

Wisconsin governments spend $259 per citizen on corrections which is higher than neighboring states. In Minnesota the figure is $163 per citizen, Illinois $157, Iowa $152, and Michigan $252.

The report also notes that on the list of states with the highest percentage of male black adults in their corrections systems, Wisconsin at the top. One out of every eight black males of working age (18-64) is in the Wisconsin system.

The political winds may be changing. The Koch family, which has supported conservative politicians including Gov. Scott Walker, is backing efforts to reform incarceration practices in America. Federal and state governments are implementing changes aimed at reducing populations of those convicted of non-violent crimes.

As a legislator in the 1990s Walker was a driving force in the enactment of the mandatory minimum sentences. Those laws reduced discretion for trial judges and parole officials. Some may argue mandatory minimums increased the power of prosecutors in plea deals.

Major concerns have arisen over the number of minor crimes on the books and how those convicted are treated. Treatment for drug addiction could be less expensive than putting a person in prison where the average annual cost comes close to $30,000.

Another concern is the rules and procedures for those who are on parole. A significant percentage of inmates in the prison system are those returned for violating parole rather than committing a new crime. Texas has adopted non-prison sanctions for violations of technical rules. The state also has added more education opportunities to help parolees have job skills, according to the report.

Parole violations might include unauthorized use of cell phones and cameras, borrowing money, or crossing county lines. Some might suggest that adding more parole agents who could work more closely with fewer parolees by reducing overall caseloads, leading to fewer parole revocations, particularly those that occur soon after release.

“The state has taken some baby steps in this direction already, but this area is ripe for widespread reform,” the Budget Report said.

Alas, it is easier politically to be “tough on crime” than to be for reforms in dealing with those convicted of crimes. Often the victims of crime like the concept of minimum mandatory sentences which assure time behind bars.

The question of who pays for “tough on crime” positions can impact the number of people sent to prison. When local governments are forced to pay for incarceration for a variety of non-violent offenses, the public enthusiasm recedes for being tough on crime. That’s what happened in Minnesota.

Wisconsin’s 20 adult male prisons are scattered across the state, often being the major employer in smaller towns. During the 1980s the state had rented space in prisons in other states. The building boom which followed was sold as bringing prison jobs back to Wisconsin.

Jobs continue to be a significant political influence on corrections policy, especially in smaller cities.

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