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Wisconsin Enacts New Early Release Law

by Matt Clarke

When Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle signed legislation to grant early release to certain prisoners, he just couldn’t win. “It went too far,” said Republicans. “It didn’t go far enough,” retorted his fellow Democrats. What in fact Governor Doyle did was authorize a new form of parole.

Wisconsin effectively eliminated its discretionary parole system in 1999, when truth-in-sentencing legislation was passed that required prisoners to serve their entire sentence followed by mandatory post-release “extended supervision.” This caused the state’s prison population to increase by 14% between 2000 and 2007; it now stands at about 23,000 pris-oners. The population was projected to increase another 25% by 2019, costing the state $2.5 billion in additional prison construction and operating costs.

This budget-busting projection motivated Governor Doyle, the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, the Republi-can Assembly speaker and the Democratic Senate president to commission the non-partisan Justice Center of the Council on State Governments to analyze the causes of Wisconsin’s prison population growth.

The Center found that a main factor was long prison terms for technical parole violators, which was estimated to cost the state $99 million annually. The Center, which had successfully helped Kansas and Texas avert prison crowding crises through an approach called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.18], made several recommendations. Those recommendations included capping prison time for technical parole violators at 6 months, capping the amount of extended supervision after release to 75% of the time served in prison, setting a goal to reduce recidivism by 25% within the next two years, spending $30 million to expand community-based reentry services for releasees, and authorizing judges to impose shorter sentences conditioned on the completion of treatment programs.

The Democrats in Wisconsin’s legislature included most of the suggested reforms in the state budget. However, when the budget reached Governor Doyle’s office he vetoed all of the initiatives except $10 million in funding for community-based treatment programs and the creation of a new form of parole.

The new parole system will be managed by the Earned Release Review Commission, which is appointed by the Governor and replaces the existing Parole Board (which is responsible for parole decisions for prisoners whose sentences predate the 1999 truth-in-sentencing law). The Department of Corrections will have control over much of the process of determining which prisoners will be allowed earned release. The most violent offenders and sex offenders are excluded.

Republicans were livid, warning voters of the release of “thousands of dangerous criminals” that “may be coming to a neighborhood near you.”

State Representative Joe Parisi, who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee, didn’t understand such criticism. “These recommendations are tested, they’re evidence-based, they’ve been used in a number of other states. And definitely not soft-on-crime states. We’re talking Texas. We’re talking Kansas,” he said. By the same token, Parisi was disappointed that the Center’s other recommendations had been vetoed. “What the governor did was a start, but we could have accomplished so much more.”

Maybe a start is all that Wisconsin prisoners can hope for after so many years of tough-on-crime, soft-on-thinking political rhetoric. At least state officials recognized there was a problem and tried to do something different – even if the end result after Governor Doyle’s veto was underfunded and only a small part of the recommended solution.

Following months of screening by the Department of Corrections, the first twenty-one prisoners eligible for early re-lease under the new parole plan were released on January 5, 2010. Around 3,000 Wisconsin prisoners may eventually qualify for earned release if they maintain good institutional behavior.

Wisconsin Assemblyman Scott Suder saw it another way, saying the early releases amounted to “rewarding bad behavior,” alluding to the crimes the prisoners had committed that resulted in their incarceration.

Sources:, Associated Press, Wisconsin state budget summary

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