Ryan J. Owens: How to keep more people out of prison

May 12, 2018 GMT

Wisconsin’s criminal justice system needs reform. Liberals and conservatives, prosecutors and defenders, all agreed on that at a recent conference hosted by the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership at UW-Madison.

Some experts argued the high cost of today’s criminal justice system demands changes. The cost for corrections takes up about 8 percent of the state’s budget, roughly $1.2 billion. This prevents policymakers from devoting resources to other areas of need.

To address the economic and human costs, speakers advocated several criminal justice reforms.

One idea was to expand economic liberty by freeing up license restrictions. In Wisconsin, hundreds of jobs require licenses to perform. Some of these requirements, such as in the medical field, make sense. But others seem designed to keep people from competing with incumbent jobholders for positions such as barber and cosmetologist.

Many of these licenses restrict opportunity and impact ex-felons disproportionately. Panelists suggested that if we want to increase Wisconsin’s workforce and save taxpayer money, we should consider fewer license restrictions.

A second consensus thundered loudly and clearly when examining civil forfeiture. Wisconsin has no business taking people’s property without due process of law. Civil forfeiture lets authorities seize property from people who have never been formally charged with a crime. The process property owners must go through to reclaim their rightfully held property is onerous and expensive.

After authorities seize your property, the resulting legal proceedings do not follow regular standards of criminal law. Moreover, little data are kept on how much money Wisconsin collects from civil forfeiture, and from whom. Panelists agreed citizens have the right to know how much money gets collected through forfeiture. Speakers on the right and the left advocated for greater protections for property owners, and greater transparency.

A final proposed reform zeroed in on the need for greater education and training for low-level offenders. The data are clear: Ex-offenders are much less likely to commit future crimes if they have jobs, which provide economic security and dignity.

In that vein, panelists discussed former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s recently proposed “Second Chance Skills Institute.” Thompson urged state lawmakers to turn one of the state’s prisons into a job training facility. Society and taxpayers would be better off if fewer people committed crimes and ended up back in prison. And businesses would benefit from a growing workforce.

Two things should be clear. First, the men and women who work in our criminal justice system today do amazing work. They have complex and often dangerous jobs and perform them ably. These reforms do not target them. Rather, they are designed to alter institutions and processes.

Second, in our effort to reduce costs and improve the criminal justice system, we must ensure that hardened criminals and drug dealers who peddle poison to our kids do not escape culpability for their crimes. We must always remember the victims of crime, and that public safety is our top priority.

Thompson visualized big changes. He sought to tackle major problems with out-of-the-box thinking. These three issues fall within the spirit of “Tommy reforms” and surely will generate policy interest among legislators.