Image credits: Tanner Cole
Members of a faith-based group that advocates for prison reform are upset by the Wisconsin Legislature’s approval of additional funding to accommodate an increase in the state’s prison population.
“Over the last two years we have been talking to the Department of Corrections and the governor about how we can safely reduce our prison population and save money,” said Sandra Milligan, president of Wisdom, at a state Capitol rally on Wednesday. She called the state’s failure to listen “outrageous.”
About three dozen group members from throughout the state turned out for the Capitol rally, followed by a trip to the state Department of Corrections offices a few miles away. They delivered letters to legislative leaders and DOC Secretary Ed Wall.
“While states around the nation, some led by Republicans and some led by Democrats, are working hard to reduce their prison populations, and even close some facilities, Wisconsin is going the other direction,” the letter to Wall states. It argued that Wisconsin should approach prison reform with special urgency, given that it has “the shameful distinction of having the highest African American incarceration rate in the country.”
Wisconsin’s adult prison population has in fact been decreasing, from nearly 24,000 in 2007 to about 22,000 today. But it still incarcerates about twice as many people as Minnesota, a state with a comparable population and crime rate.
The rally was called in response to the May 19 decision of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to approve a $5 million hike in the state’s prison budget. A memo explains that the additional funding is needed because prison population estimates for the next two years have risen since the initial version of the budget was unveiled. The projected adult inmate total for fiscal year 2017 is 21,484, nearly 500 higher than originally forecast.
While $5 million is not a huge sum given that Wisconsin already spends about $1.3 billion a year on corrections, it came as a disappointment to advocates who feel that they have identified reasonable alternatives to mass incarceration.
“There are a dozen ways to bring the prison population down and still keep our communities safe,” the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, a Wisdom member, said at the rally. The group has even produced a blueprint that lists multiple strategies for achieving this end.
“They ignored that [blueprint],” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project and the former administrator of law enforcement services for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “They ignored Grover Norquist.”
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is among a growing number of conservatives calling for changes to reduce prison costs, both financial and human. In April, Norquist visited the Wisconsin state Capitol to urge lawmakers to take a step back from tough-on-crime laws like truth-in-sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences. As a lawmaker in the late 1990s, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the lead sponsor of the state’s truth-in-sentencing law.
At a legislative committee hearing in early May, top Wisconsin prison officials spoke positively about efforts to improve inmate education and treatment options to reduce recidivism.
“The key to success is not how many people we put in, [but] how many we keep from coming back,” Secretary Wall told the Republican-dominated Assembly Committee on Corrections.
State Representative Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, who attended this hearing, says he came away believing “we were going to be on track to reduce the prison population.” That’s why he was shocked by the $5 million allocation.
“Nobody saw this coming,” said Barnes, who was at the rally with two other Democratic state lawmakers. “It’s really a shame.”
Barnes, who formerly worked for Wisdom in Milwaukee, lamented the lost opportunities for the state in allocating $5 million to lock more people up. The Rev. Willie Brisco, a Wisdom member, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Give me $5 million and I’ll divert 1,000 people from prison,” Brisco said. “Give me $5 million and I’ll give kids a better education. Give me $5 million and I’ll increase transitional jobs,” so people coming out of prison can support their families.
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab noted that the numbers underlying the budget allocations “are trend projections and of course subject to change based on arrest, prosecution and sentencing decisions made throughout the judicial system.”
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive and author of An Enemy of the State, the biography of late Progressive editor Erwin Knoll. Lueders was news editor at Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly, for twenty-five years, and has won dozens of state and national awards. In 2011 he moved to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, where he became one of Wisconsin’s leading investigative reporters, regularly breaking big stories and writing a weekly column that ran in newspapers all over the state. In 2015 he joined the staff of The Progressive.
Image credits: Tanner Cole