Project Milwaukee
12:18 pm
Tue May 6, 2014

Advocates: 3 Ways to Reduce Wisconsin's $1.2 Billion Corrections Budget

Two members of the Felmers Chaney Correctional Center Community Advisory Board offer suggestions for prison alternatives based on what has worked at the facility.
Two members of the Felmers Chaney Correctional Center Community Advisory Board offer suggestions for prison alternatives based on what has worked at the facility.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Wisconsin needs to change its corrections policies in order to reduce the state’s prison population, two advisory board members of a Milwaukee area correctional facility say.

Former pastor Joseph Ellwanger and attorney R.L. McNeely are members of the Community Advisory Board for Felmers Chaney Correctional Center, a minimum security facility that houses more than 100 men. The inmates, who are toward the end of their sentences and considered nonviolent, go to work during the day and return to the center in the evening.

“The chances of succeeding and really reentering society positively are much higher if you’ve got a job and a place to stay in contrast to somebody who has no job ,” says Ellwanger, who has been active with the group faith-based group WISDOM and its “11x15 Campaign” to change policies in the corrections system.

McNeely and Ellwanger say Felmers Chaney offers an example of the types of programs the Wisconsin DOC could use to not only reduce prison populations, but also lower costs and give inmates a better shot at staying out of prison, once they’re released.

Invest More Heavily in Treatment Alternatives & Diversion Programs

Some states have been able to reduce costs and more successfully re-integrate offenders into their communities by putting resources into the front-end of the justice system – using programs to help people accused of crimes avoid prison in the first place.

Treatment alternatives and diversion programs (TAD) essentially bring together the court and corrections systems to place nonviolent offenders with underlying drug or alcohol problems into treatment programs, rather than prison. If they complete their programs, the accused may have their charges dropped altogether or reduced.

“If we don’t deal with those underlying issues and we put somebody into prison for five years, ten years, they come out, they still have the addiction, they reoffend, they go back in, they come out, it’s a revolving door,” Ellwanger says. “So it’s the most important way of bringing down incarceration expenses and raising the success rate of keeping people out of prison.”

While some states, including conservative ones like Texas and Georgia, have invested millions of dollars into TAD programs, Wisconsin has been slower to invest, Ellwanger says.

Wisconsin first created a TAD grant program with about $1.5 million in funding in 2005. Two University of Wisconsin studies found that for every dollar invested in the TAD programs, the state saved almost $2. TAD programs eliminated more than 211,889 days spent in prison since the program was implemented.

The studies also found that 79 percent of those who complete the program have their initial cases dismissed or get a reduced charge, and more than 75 percent of TAD participants are not convicted of a new crime after the program (after three years).

Based on the success of the program, Wisconsin is continuing to invest. In 2014, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation adding another $1.5 million for TAD programming.

But R.L. McNeely  says that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s “mammoth” corrections budget: more than $1.2 billion. That’s about twice the amount spent by Minnesota taxpayers.

“Minnesota really keeps people in the community if they’re not a danger to the community,” Ellwanger says. “They find programs for them to deal with their underlying issues and we put them in prison and that costs us two, three, four times as much.”

Reassess Reintegration Programs

Another reason why Wisconsin has such a large prison population is its high recidivism rate. Ellwanger says the state’s Department of Corrections has been focused on helping former inmates successful re-enter their communities for the last few years.

But McNeely, professor emeritus of social welfare at UWM, disagrees.

“They’ve said it nominally; in terms of the actually policy and procedures, they don’t follow through,” he says. “In our view, they don’t follow through on that stated commitment to reintegration.”

McNeely says the DOC doesn’t collect or provide the kind of data needed to “fine-tune programs designed to enhance re-integration…That’s a handicap to planning to make your programs as effective as they can be.”

Reconsider Minor Parole Violations

Furthermore, he sees problems when it comes to the state’s parole system. He says too many people are being sent back to prison as a result of “minor rule infractions” of parole or supervision agreements, such as being late to meet a parole officer.

If a parole officer believes a parolee has violated the rules, he can be detained until an administrative law judge can determine whether a violation occurred and whether to revoke parole.

But even a short amount of time back behind bars can be damaging, McNeely says.

“When you’re in custody…you could lose your job, you could lose your housing,” McNeely says. “Does that sound like a reasonable thing to you? We’re talking about minor infractions here; we’re not talking about any sort of substantial criminal activity.”

McNeely says it’s hard to know exactly how many people are having their parole revoked for minor reasons, but based on what he hears through his role at Felmers Chaney, it’s a “very substantial problem.”

“For minor rule violations to have that sort of consequence, is very inconsistent with truly focusing on reintegration as DOC’s mission says they’re doing,” McNeely adds.

Ellwanger says other states have passed laws against such policies, but not Wisconsin. He calls parole officers “paranoid” about reporting minor infractions, in case a parolee commits a crime on their watch.

So he says the state must better implement “alternatives to revocation,” to avoid people returning to prison for minor parole violations. These alternatives could include community-based treatment programs like a TAD program. He suggests administrative judges who consider whether to revoke parole or supervision and send an offender back to prison should consider an alternative instead.