Madison Capital Times: Democrats want to reduce state’s prison population
Democrats seeking to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population are reintroducing a batch of bills vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle this summer. This is a picture of an inmate at a prison in Arizona, which is considering turning over its prisons to private companies. MATT YORK | Associated Press
This summer, Gov. Jim Doyle made a controversial decision to roll back truth-in-sentencing legislation and let up to 3,000 nonviolent inmates out of prison early to save the state the $29,000 or so it cost to house each of them every year. Fellow Democrats in the Legislature hoped that Doyle would also sign into law measures they introduced to further chip away at the state’s burgeoning prison population, but Doyle vetoed many of them.
Now Democrats are re-introducing those measures. It’s unlikely that they will pass as written, but legislators hope they will provide a starting point to keep the debate going, possibly through several legislative sessions. Doyle, after all, has decided not to run for re-election and will only be in office for another year.
“Obviously because these specific proposals were vetoed, we’re going to have to work with everyone to fashion policies that we can move through the Legislature and have enacted,” says Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, chairman of the Assembly corrections committee.
The measures, introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly, are intended to keep inmates from landing back in prison after they have served their prison sentences but while they remain on extended supervision, which has become a key contributor to the prison population explosion. One provision would cap at 90 days the amount of time an offender would spend in prison for rule violations that don’t constitute a new crime.
The Justice Center, which has successfully helped other states, including Kansas and Texas, reduce prison populations, made several other recommendations that Democrats included in the 2009-11 budget. But Doyle vetoed those, saying Department of Corrections officials need a free hand to determine who should get out of prison.
The proposals would have limited the time offenders spend on extended supervision to 75 percent of the time they spend behind bars, required the Department of Corrections to reduce recidivism by 25 percent by 2011 and expanded community-based mental health and job placement services.
While Doyle allowed $10 million for community-based services, Democratic lawmakers wanted $20 million more — $8 million to bolster mental health services for severely mentally ill offenders on parole or extended supervision, and $12 million for transitional employment programs — as another means to keep offenders who have been released from re-offending.
“We have to break the cycle of people being released into the community and being unsuccessful and landing back in our prison,” Parisi says. “That’s the main driver of our prison population right now.”
Truth-in-sentencing legislation in 1999 abolished parole and replaced it with extended supervision, making it mandatory for inmates to serve out their entire sentences. Since then, the prison population has grown by 14 percent to about 22,500 and is projected to climb another 25 percent by 2019 if nothing is done to stop it. The further increase is expected to cost the state $2.5 billion in construction and operating costs.
Some Republicans howled at Doyle’s decision to let nonviolent offenders out of prison before reaching the end of their jail terms, but one key lawmaker says such measures were inevitable.
“At the time truth-in-sentencing was passed, and I voted for it, most knowledgeable people felt that there would be some follow-up legislation to prevent that bill from becoming too expensive,” says state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the ranking Republican on the Senate corrections committee.
He says he doesn’t go along with law-and-order Republicans who oppose letting anyone out of prison before their sentences are served. And he says Doyle’s move will allow the Department of Corrections to hold the line on the prison population, but do little to reduce it.
“Something should be done,” Grothman says.
But he doesn’t support proposals that would cost more money. For instance, he says, while inmates with jobs are less likely to re-offend, the $20 million for community-based services is unnecessary. The Department of Corrections, he says, already has enough employees to provide those services now.
“I’m sure Doyle did the right thing in vetoing them,” he says of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative proposals. “Obviously we’re broke.”
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative proposals aren’t the only pending legislation that deal with inmates.
Another Assembly bill would allow felons who have been released from prison to vote while they remain on extended supervision. Currently offenders are barred from voting until they have served out their entire sentence.
Parisi says the measure would save money by eliminating the felon lists that poll workers have to use to verify voter eligibility and also reduce lines on Election Day by making the polling process less complicated.
In addition, he says, studies have shown that former inmates who are allowed to vote tend to be less likely to re-offend.
And there’s also a racial justice component, Parisi says. Wisconsin has one of the nation’s worst track records in disproportionately locking up blacks, who make up nearly half of Wisconsin’s prison population while constituting just 6 percent of the state’s population.
“Since the criminal justice system targets blacks, it also disproportionately disenfranchises them,” Parisi says.
The measure has support among many Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature. All 18 co-sponsors in the Assembly are Democrats as well as four co-sponsors in the Senate. The bill passed the corrections committee on a party-line vote, clearing it for further debate in the full Assembly, but it is unlikely to garner wide bipartisan support.
Rep. Karl Van Roy, R-Green Bay, the ranking Republican on the Assembly corrections committee, was not available for comment. But he told constituents in a statement posted on his website that giving released felons the right to vote would allow them “to forget the reason why they lost their right to vote in the first place.”
“When you choose to commit a serious crime against society and you are found guilty by a court of law, you must forfeit certain rights for a prescribed amount of time in order to repay your debt to society,” he wrote.
Another bill introduced in the Assembly would dent county budgets. It would require that inmate phone charges in county jails not exceed rates charged by the state Department of Corrections.
The bill would come at a time when Dane County has already reduced phone charges for inmates. In 2007, the County Board voted to stop the county from profiting on inmate phone calls, which cost inmates $4.25 for a connection fee plus up to 50 cents a minute. This year, the charges are expected to bring in just over $800,000 for the county, but next year, when the new contract with the jail’s phone service provider, Inmate Calling Solutions, goes into effect, those rates will drop to 33 cents a minute for a local call and the connection fee will be eliminated. That would earn the county about $476,000, the 2010 county budget projects, which officials say is just enough to cover costs.
Under the state bill, the county would have to further reduce its rates to 12 cents a minute for in-state calls and 18 cents a minute for out-of-state calls with no connection fee — the rates currently charged by the Department of Corrections.
If passed, the law would have no impact until the county’s new contract with Inmate Calling Solutions expires in 2012.
At a time when the county is already trying to pinch pennies, the bill, which has had a public hearing but not a committee vote, would put a further burden on county taxpayers, according to Capt. Jeff Teuscher, Dane County jail administrator.
“Someone would have to absorb those costs,” he says. “In all likelihood, if that bill would pass, then that will be Dane County taxpayers.”
A series of bills introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly deal with getting inmates out of prison or keeping them from returning after being released. Provisions would cap at 90 days the amount of time an offender would spend in prison for rule violations that don’t constitute a new crime; limit the time offenders spend on extended supervision to 75 percent of the time they spend behind bars; and require the Department of Corrections to reduce recidivism by 25 percent by 2011. Another measure would add $20 million to the budget for community-based mental health and job-training services.
The proposals have virtually no change of passing as written. They were included in the state budget last summer and Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the limits on prison time, and reduced $30 million Democrats wanted for community-based services to $10 million. But Democrats say re-introducing the bills provides a starting point for compromise measures.
Assembly Bill 353 would allow felons who have been released from prison, but remain on extended supervision, to vote. Currently, offenders are prohibited from voting until they have served their entire sentences.
The measure has Democratic support and passed the Assembly corrections committee on a party-line vote.
Assembly Bill 144 would prohibit county jails from charging inmates more than the state Department of Corrections does for phone calls. The legislation would likely affect revenues at nearly every jail in the state. The office of state Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, the author of the bill, reports that every jail that responded to a survey of phone rates charges more than the new state rates of 12 cents a minute for local calls and 18 cents a minute for out-of-state calls, with no connection fee.
The bill has received a public hearing, and Kessler has added an amendment that would allow current jail phone contracts to expire before the requirement kicks in. But the corrections committee has not voted on the proposal.
Assembly Bill 448 would require those held in a prison, jail or a juvenile facility to pay a portion of medical or dental care, through deductibles, coinsurance, copayments or other charges.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Mark Radcliffe, D-Black River Falls, and has three Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors in the Assembly, plus one Democrat and two Republicans in the Senate. The bill is opposed by Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, the Assembly corrections committee chairman, who is unlikely to allow a hearing on it.
Assembly Bill 345 would prevent the state Department of Corrections from entering into any agreement to house detainees from the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, who introduced the bill, says it would make Wisconsin a “Terrorist Free Zone.”
The proposal has Republican support, but Parisi says the legislation is unnecessary since there has been no talk of housing inmates from Guantanamo Bay in Wisconsin’s prisons.