Every election year, politicians in Wisconsin take to the campaign trail and promise to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and to keep our streets safe. But in our state, we have a criminal justice system that often betrays those promises and undermines our shared values.
Since 1980, Wisconsin’s prison population has grown more than fivefold. Today, more than 22,000 Wisconsinites are incarcerated, which strains taxpayers and shrinks the workforce. To be sure, there is a role for incarceration when it comes to those who endanger public safety, but Wisconsin is locking up too many people who do not fall into that category, including nearly 2,000 admissions every year for drug offenses.
Incarceration costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $1 billion a year as spending on corrections has far outpaced other budgetary priorities. Aside from being a burden on taxpayers while inside, those who leave prison face many obstacles to success, including reconnecting with family, finding employment and housing. In contrast, community-based interventions, such as drug and mental health treatment—often in conjunction with drug and other problem-solving courts—help break the cycle, providing accountability while strengthening connections to family and making it easier to find employment and housing.
A major driver of this crisis in Wisconsin is the probation and parole system, which causes people to be thrown back in prison for minor mistakes like missing an appointment or even taking a job without prior approval. These revocations, known as “technical revocations” because they don’t involve to commission of a new offense, undermine the original goal of supervision as a rehabilitative alternative to prison.
In 2018 alone, more than 3,700 Wisconsinites were revoked from community supervision to prison for merely technical violations, accounting for 45% of all new admissions to state prisons. Wisconsin now has the highest rate of parole supervision among its neighboring states, and people spend more than twice as long on parole than the national average. Forcing people to live one missed appointment away from a prison sentence is unfair, unjust and harmful. Our probation and parole system should be helping people stay out of prison and rebuild their lives, not creating tripwires for failure.
Dozens of states have instituted alternatives to curtail revocations for minor technical violations, including increased reporting, curfews and even a weekend in jail that allows those under supervision to be held accountable while maintaining employment. The experience in these states, and as shown in a vast body of research, have demonstrated that the swift, certain and commensurate sanctions combined with positive incentives such as earned time for exemplary performance, are far more cost-effective in promoting compliance with supervision terms than technical revocations to prison. Wisconsin simply cannot afford to continue with this failed, counterproductive approach.
Across the country, leaders from both sides of the aisle are coming together behind smart and sensible solutions that will improve public safety and stop the revolving door between supervision and prison. In states like Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, criminal justice reforms are already working to reduce crime and right-size state government. Last year, Donald Trump signed sweeping reform legislation into law, calling the First Step Act “a model for criminal justice reform at the state level.”
Now, Wisconsin legislators have an opportunity to follow their lead and implement proven, evidence-based reforms that will make our communities stronger and safer. By reining in technical revocations, removing barriers to post-prison employment and expanding access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, Wisconsin lawmakers can demonstrate their commitment to the values of fairness and personal accountability—and reduce the size of government at the same time.
Our communities are strongest when all Wisconsinites can work, support their families and participate in society. Sensible criminal justice reforms, including the revamping community supervision, will enable Wisconsin policymakers to deliver on their promises of safe streets and wiser use of precious taxpayer dollars.