Wisconsin’s prison population has swelled over the past four decades from 3,000 to well over 20,000.
The state also now has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country.
Wisconsin was among the states that had adopted a ‘get tough on crime’ policy, particularly for drug offenses. But in recent times, Wisconsin has been looking at ways to reduce its non-violent prison population.
A legislative committee will meet this summer, to consider easing certain sentences. Lawmakers from both parties will serve on the committee.
The chair will be Republican Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield. He says it will look at re-classifying certain offenses. For instance, the state might bump down certain minor felonies to misdemeanors and some misdemeanors to fines.
“The areas we’re going to be dealing with are more in the area of non-violent, where you can make the argument that those individuals are not a threat to society,” Hutton says.
Hutton emphasizes that sentences for violent offenses would remain intact, but for others, the person might need treatment.
“Whether it’s through mental health issues, addiction issues, drug issues, that’s where we can have an honest discussion as to, what are we doing with those individuals,” Hutton says.
Hutton says the cost of incarcerating thousands of non-violent offenders has been straining county jails and the state corrections budget. It tops $1 billion.
“I think people as taxpayers and we as legislators, who are stewards of those taxpayer dollars are obligated to ask the questions of, how well are we doing,” Hutton says.
Hutton insists there’s a ground swell of support among his colleagues to ease some sentences and that the public will not view changes as Wisconsin going soft on crime.
One person who expects results is Marquette University Law School Professor Michael O’Hear. He says about three dozen states are working on prison reform.
“Nationally, this is increasingly a bipartisan issue and people on both sides of the aisle recognize there are a lot of people in prison who don’t need to be in prison," O'Hear says. "It’s a real budgetary issue and it’s also a moral issue if we’re holding people in prison who don’t need to be there."
One state that has drastically reduced its prison population is Texas. Jason Clark, spokesman for its Department of Corrections, says when the number of Texas inmates peaked at 156,000 in 2007, the Legislature began passing laws aimed at lowering the numbers.
“They looked at substance abuse treatment, invested heavily on substance abuse treatment for those offenders who are incarcerated as well as those outside," Clark says. "They also focused on DWI offenders and then they started to look at probation and parole, particularly probation on how can we keep these offenders that are really at the beginning of the criminal justice system and keep them from coming in."
Clark estimates that Texas has diverted 6,000 people from its prison system. The Wisconsin committee will hold its first meeting this month and hopes to recommend changes early in 2015.