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Hard road ahead for Gov. Tony Evers to cut prison population

June 30, 2019

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers is considering enactment of an obscure 30-year-old early release program and halting reincarceration of offenders for rule violations to reduce Wisconsin’s growing prison population.

In an interview with Wisconsin Watch, Evers expressed optimism about his ability to accomplish a major campaign promise: to reduce by 50% the state’s prison population, which is on course to hit an all-time high of 25,000 inmates by 2021.

While 31 states saw decreases in their prison populations from 2017 to 2018, Wisconsin is not one of them. Currently, Wisconsin’s prison system is 33% above capacity, with 18 of the state’s 20 adult prisons listed as overcrowded. The prisons are also understaffed, with 7,650 full-time equivalent employees working the equivalent of nearly 900 additional FTEs.

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The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

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In a July 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate debate, Evers was asked whether he supported a proposal by activists to cut the state’s prison population in half: “Absolutely — and that’s a goal worth accomplishing,” he said. Unlike his predecessor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who failed to fulfill a campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, Evers has avoided setting a deadline for his goal.

Evers signaled in the interview that he would favor increasing paroles. In addition, Evers said he wants to take a “holistic” approach to releasing inmates by helping them line up family-supporting jobs, housing and transportation for a smoother reintegration into society. And he vowed to keep pushing for more money for alternative and treatment programs to divert offenders from prison.

The governor also defended his first budget, which calls for more prison beds, not fewer. He said he is focused on longer-term solutions.

“It’s really a multifaceted project, and we’re working very hard to make sure issues around housing, substance abuse, education and so on are part of that answer,” Evers said.

He said he remains concerned about the racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system — black people in Wisconsin were incarcerated at almost 12 times the rate of whites in 2017. This disparity was the second-highest in the country as of 2016.

There are some things the Evers administration can do on its own: increase paroles, reduce or eliminate so-called crimeless revocations that send offenders in the community back to prison for rule violations and invoke a little-used state law that allows early releases in periods of overcrowding.

But other measures, such as cutting maximum sentences and diverting more offenders to treatment, would require cooperation of judges and the Republican-run Legislature, which has taken few steps in the past eight years to curb incarceration.

In a separate interview, Kevin Carr, Evers’ pick for Department of Corrections Secretary, avoided endorsing a specific number. Carr said his goal is to “lower the population as low as reasonably possible and still keep the public safe.” That number could be 50%, he said, or it could be more or less than that.

“The governor didn’t appoint me to this position and say, ‘Here’s the keys to all the jails. Let 50% of the people out tomorrow,’” Carr said. “It has to be done in a very thoughtful, deliberate way, and we hope to achieve reductions of our current populations in our facilities by having bipartisan support.”

Wisconsin spends around $6 million for treatment and diversion programs each year. In May, Evers sought to boost that by another $4 million a year, but Republicans who run the Joint Finance Committee kept it at Evers’ original budget increase of $2 million a year.

Under his capital budget, Evers is proposing adding a 144-bed barracks at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the women’s prison in Fond du Lac. He is also recommending Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls add two, 144-bed barracks.

Wisdom, a statewide faith-based organization, released a statement saying Evers’ budget “is extremely disappointing in its treatment of criminal justice issues,” and “funds a growth in the prison system” rather than a reduction.

Evers defended that move.

“Doing some temporary expansion is doing nothing more than making it safe for the people that are incarcerated,” Evers said. “But I will say, just kind of pushing back a little bit, we did put a fair amount of money in the budget, and we continue to fight for that, making sure that we have mental health treatment and other alternatives and diversion programs across the state of Wisconsin.”

He added that people are being incarcerated for too long, and in certain situations, offenders could be treated in a “better, more humane way.”

As of June 21, Wisconsin had 23,755 men and women in state prisons, one-third over the design capacity of 17,830.

Carr said in his visits to the prisons, the impact of overcrowding is “obvious”: double-celled inmates and lack of activities and programming for them.

Mark Rice was triple-celled at Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility for six months in 2007 for violating a rule of his supervision. He said he was forced to sleep on the floor next to the toilet. The crowded conditions exacerbated his mental health problems, including paranoid schizophrenia, Rice said.

Former Waupun Correctional Institution psychologist Bradley Boivin, when asked about his experience working in overcrowded conditions, said around two-thirds of the inmates were double-celled during the two years he worked at Waupun before leaving in 2016.

As of June 21, the Waupun prison had a population of 1,254 — about 370 more than its design capacity. Boivin described the cells as “closet sized,” where inmates can touch both walls, and the depth is barely longer than a bunk bed.

State officials declined requests from Wisconsin Watch to view and photograph prison conditions.

Putting individuals with trauma in a small space with people they might see as a threat can trigger emotions and symptoms associated with the trauma, Boivin said.

“If these individuals were in single cells, I would say half the psych service requests wouldn’t have even existed,” Boivin said.

One option Evers is considering is the Special Action Release Program, a 1989 law which would authorize the DOC secretary to release parole-eligible inmates, which would primarily be those convicted before truth-in-sentencing. Evers said any releases would not happen immediately, and Carr said that public safety would be the top priority.

Among the dozen requirements for special action release are that individuals are not serving a life sentence, are within 18 months of mandatory release and do not have a conviction for an assaultive crime or have a known history of assaultive behavior.

While it is unclear exactly how many parole-eligible inmates would meet the criteria for the program, as of Dec. 31, there were 1,900 inmates serving time only on parole-eligible offenses, DOC spokeswoman Clare Hendricks said. Another 1,000 or so inmates could be paroled only after completing sentences for non-parole eligible offenses, she said.

Another reason for the crowding: Only about 5% of so-called old-law inmates have been granted parole in recent years, said David Liners, executive director of Wisdom.

Prior to Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing law in 1999, offenders were eligible for release after serving 25% of their time and received a mandatory release after serving two-thirds of their time, after which they were paroled.

“That whole (parole) system is just broken down, and it’s a nightmare,” Liners said. “Common reasons people are given for having their parole denied, are ‘insufficient time served’ or somehow releasing them would be an ‘unacceptable risk to society’ — there’s no definition for either of those things.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has sued the state, alleging its reasons for refusing parole for eligible inmates who committed crimes as juveniles are unconstitutional. Wisconsin’s parole system, according to the ACLU, “gives parole commissioners unchecked discretion to deny release.”

Paroles are handled by the Wisconsin Parole Commission, which is separate from the DOC. The governor appoints the commission’s chairperson for a two-year term with the consent of the state Senate.

In May, Evers appointed Racine alderman John Tate II to serve as chairman. When asked if he would favor more paroles, Evers said he trusts Tate’s judgment. Tate has told Wisconsin Public Radio that he would like to increase the number of paroles.

Said Evers: “I’m sure he (Tate) will be not only fair, but he’ll also believe, as I do, that we have to believe in redemption, and we have to believe in making sure people get a second chance.”

An April Marquette Law School poll found 55% of voters support early release if offenders have served two-thirds of their sentence and demonstrate they are not a threat to society. That would represent a reversal from truth-in-sentencing, which is unlikely to change any time soon, said Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee.

Committee member Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, agreed, saying he is focused on more short-term fixes — revocation, release and supervision — to ease “the immediate crisis of overcrowding,” which includes 500 inmates currently staying in county jails.

An area that is more likely to receive bipartisan support from the state Legislature is expanding treatment alternatives and diversion programs, such as drug courts. The April Marquette Law School poll found 78% of respondents favor such programs.

Instead of “warehousing someone away,” treatment and diversion programs treat the problem and reduce recidivism, Schraa said.

Liners said such programs are cheaper than incarceration and lead to fewer repeat criminals. “Whichever thing we’re trying to do — save money or reduce crime — they both have the same answer,” he said.

Evers said bipartisan efforts to cut prison populations are underway across the country, and Wisconsin should follow their lead.

“When we have people whose lives are being turned around in a negative way because they’re incarcerated for either too long or for crimes that don’t need incarceration, that’s a moral issue for me,” Evers said. “That’s why I think it’s important, and that’s why I think we’re going to be successful in the end.”

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