On Tuesday, March 25, I had the privilege of addressing the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee public hearing on the budget held at Wisconsin State Fair Park. I addressed the committee on the lack of wisdom in Governor Doyle’s proposal for early release of “non-violent” state prison inmates in an effort to save money. It’s ironic that in 1998, then attorney general Jim Doyle was against early release when the State Department of Corrections director at the time, Walter Dickey, advanced the idea.
I was given three minutes to make my point. I asked the committee to remove this proposal from the budget and to make it a separate issue so that a more comprehensive discussion can be had for a long-term strategy on corrections for the state of Wisconsin. Nothing as monumental as the reform needed in corrections can be articulated in three minutes, which is why this needs to be a separate matter from the budget.
Not many people would disagree that we need comprehensive reform in the State Department of Corrections. We need a plan that is less costly and at the same time does not put the safety of law-abiding people and communities at risk, which I believe the Governor and Secretary Raemisch’s proposal would do. This proposal is inconsiderate of what it will add to public safety spending at the local level. It’s one-dimensional and short term. Milwaukee County is not prepared for the influx of recently released state prison inmates back into our neighborhoods. No community has the money or the resources.
I told the committee that I wanted to dispel the myth of “non-violent” offenders being in the state prison system. According to the U.S. Dept of Justice study of prison populations, it shows that the overwhelming majority of inmates in state prison systems are locked up for a conviction of a violent felony. It also reveals that inmates locked up for drug offenses are mainly dealers who are members of notorious street gangs.
A report from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute titled, “Who Really Goes to Prison in Wisconsin?” reveals that 94% of Wisconsin prison inmates are currently locked up for a conviction of a violent felony or have an arrest for a violent felony in their criminal history. My fear is that when the governor and DOC secretary realize that there are not enough “non-violent” offenders to release to meet their arrived-at budget number, the standard will be lowered as to who should be released. It’s bait and switch.
We’re not talking about second chances here. We don’t send people to prison for misdemeanors or failure to pay fines. Prison is Wisconsin’s costliest and harshest consequence. Other than when a person commits a crime such as murder or rape, our prisons are filled with people who are career criminals and have been given repeated chances to reform. Society simply got tired of their repeated abhorrent behavior. They have been sent to every program available to assist them, but criminal activity has become such an ingrained behavior that society had no recourse but to separate them from law-abiding people.
What makes the Governor and Rick Raemisch naïve enough to believe that these hardened criminals will now respond to treatment or sanctions? This is foolhardy. How can they ignore the data from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute that indicated that 90%, (yes, 90%) of the inmates in their study who were released from prison ended up being rearrested? Simply thinking happy thoughts is not comprehensive reform.
The $27 million that the governor says can be saved by releasing inmates early is the amount of health care expenditure for prison inmates. The trade-off for not having to pay for inmate healthcare will be in the form of more misery at the local level, more people victimized, more drug wars and users, more homes broken into, more cars stolen, more arsons, more property stolen, more money needed to hire police officers and higher cost for housing inmates in local jails that we thought we had already gotten rid of, even at least for awhile. Every day that a career criminal spends behind bars is another day that he cannot commit more crime. Property crimes are not irrelevant. Unleashing these recidivists back into local neighborhoods is too high a price to pay for budget convenience.
Real comprehensive corrections reform must include a discussion about privatizing the state’s prison system. Currently, 38 states have privatized all or part of their prison system. The highest expenditure in corrections is not the housing of inmates; it’s state employee (prison guards) costs, wages, healthcare and pension contributions. We must also discuss a return to our policy of housing state inmates in out-of-state facilities. State DOC saved $44.5 million between 1999 and 2002 by housing inmates out of state until Governor Doyle ended the program and returned over 4,000 prison inmates back into an already overcrowded state prison system. Revising Department of Corrections regulations would reduce costs as well.
I was asked by a member of the committee if I supported the suggestion made by some of raising taxes to deal with rising corrections costs. I told him that that was a discussion for another day. My position is that I am not for raising taxes for anything. State government needs to prioritize and realize that it cannot be all things to all people. This is what leads to rising state spending. State government needs to realize that its most elementary job is to secure the personal safety of citizens. They should fund public works projects, such as road building and maintenance, and fund education--and I don’t mean more spending on the UW system either. Every community does not need a UW extension. Funding pet causes by raising taxes should cease. Even on vices such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Another committee member asked if I supported treatment and diversion programs. I said, “maybe.” We have to rid ourselves of the fairytale that every inmate can be rehabilitated. It is not true. We need to be more realistic about who we spend our limited resources on. Some people are hell bent on doing wrong no matter how hard we try to save them. You can’t save people from themselves. I told her that more effective parenting, more intact families, and more respect for the value of an education would prevent young people from engaging in criminality as a lifestyle. It’s too late once they end up in prison.
I think you can see that real corrections reform leading to efficiencies and long-term solutions cannot be accomplished as a budget item.