Governor Scott Walker says he is proud of the way Wisconsin handles nonviolent criminals.
The Badger State governor traveled to Disney’s Magic Kingdom last week to speak at a forum hosted by Florida Governor Rick Scott for some of the 2016 presidential contenders. He spoke very highly of his own record on criminal justice.
“I think, nationally, that’s something we need to look at,” Walker said, discussing reform of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. “In our state, we have relatively few compared to the federal government.”
Then he added, “The challenges in terms of people being incarcerated for relatively low offenses is not a significant issue in the state of Wisconsin.”
The only problem? Criminal justice advocates argue he’s totally wrong.
Wisconsin’s criminal justice system has long drawn criticism from inside and outside the state, in part because roughly half of new inmates each year get imprisoned because they break the rules of parole—not because they’re convicted of new crimes.
This could potentially hinder the governor’s presidential ambitions, as other presidential contenders—like Senator Rand Paul and former Texas Governor Rick Perry—have prioritized criminal justice reform efforts.
As you’d imagine, keeping all those people in prison doesn’t come cheap.
The state spends more on prisons than it does on the University of Wisconsin system.
In its most recent budget, for the 2013-2015 biennium, the state appropriated $2.315 billion for the Department of Corrections and $2.247 billion to the university system. Politifact notes that sentencing laws passed in the 1980s contributed to the state’s prison population growth.
When he was in the state Assembly, Walker advocated for Truth-in-Sentencing legislation. Bipartisan critics say that policy also spurred more incarceration.
And while the prison populations in Wisconsin have been higher—in 2007-2008, the average daily population was 23,338, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau—advocates say the state’s criminal justice system still needs serious help.
But Wisconsin doesn’t just draw criticism for the size of its prison population; a 2013 study showed that it incarcerated a higher percent of its African-American male population than any other state in the union.
Marilyn Walczak of the Justice Initiatives Institute said Minnesota’s criminal justice policy puts Wisconsin’s to shame.
“There’s something magical in the Mississippi River, I guess, on their side of the river,” she said drily. “But it’s not magic. It’s that back in the ’70s, they took a stand and decided that they were not going to bankrupt the state on building prisons and filling them up,” she said of Minnesota.
The Cap Times noted that 12.8 percent of African-American men in Wisconsin were incarcerated, significantly more than in Oklahoma, which incarcerated the second-highest percent of its Africa-American male population, 9.7 percent.
Some criminal justice reform advocates say one factor is an outsize contributor to both the size and racially disparate nature of the state’s prison population: crimeless revocation.
Of the 8,000 people sent to prison in the state in 2013, more than half were incarcerated because they broke the rules of probation.
In other words, they didn’t go to prison because they committed new, violent crimes. Probation agents have significant sway over whether or not to re-incarcerate people on parole who break the rules, and their pushes for re-incarceration don’t come cheap. The state spends more than $100 million a year on crimeless revocations, according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“Once accused of violations, people on parole can be sent back to prison for years without proof beyond a reasonable doubt—and they are left with little chance of a successful appeal,” the Journal-Sentinel reported.
Crossing county lines, using a computer or cellphone without authorization, entering a bar, borrowing money—these things can all land ex-cons back in prison for years, according to Mark Rice, who chairs a revocations workgroup for the criminal justice reform organization WISDOM.
“It’s things most people do every day, and take for granted,” he said.
Rice said the Wisconsin Department of Corrections sent one Madison man back to prison for four years after his initial release because he opened an email account without his probation agent’s permission.
Administrative law judges oversee revocations, Rice added, and nearly always rule in favor of probation agents.
These cases aren’t handled by criminal courts, where someone facing a new round of incarceration would have more resources to fight that outcome.
“There’s really no due process involved,” Rice said.
And some argue that crimeless revocations result in racially disparate outcomes because the process gives significant discretion to parole agents. Nino Rodriguez, who does volunteer work on local jail issues with the Madison chapter of WISDOM, noted that African-American men are much more likely to be revoked than their white counterparts.
“Wherever there is more discretion in a criminal justice process, there are opportunities for racial bias to influence what’s going on,” he said.
Because about half of the people incarcerated in Wisconsin every year end up there due to breaking probation rules (rather than committing new crimes), Rice said Walker’s comment about nonviolent incarceration is “misleading.”
“We definitely have an incarceration problem,” said David Liners, the executive director of WISDOM.
That said, Walker’s comments about revisiting federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws drew praise from some criminal justice reform advocates.
“It sounds like Governor Walker wants to focus more money on cops, investigators, and prosecutors who can put violent offenders away and less on prison guards babysitting drug offenders,” said Greg Newburn, the state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We agree with that approach and think the American people do, too.”
Walker has also invested heavily in programs designed to reduce recidivism rates, said spokeswoman Laurel Patrick. The Department of Corrections defines recidivism as “a new offense resulting in a conviction and sentence to the WI DOC.” Those efforts seem to be paying off: Data from the Department of Corrections indicates that the state’s recidivism rate has gone down dramatically during Walker’s tenure, from 30.1 percent in 2009 to 14.3 percent in 2011.
So while Walker’s grasp on his state’s problems may not be completely firm, people pushing for a leaner criminal justice system haven’t given up hope.
“My gut tells me he probably doesn’t pay enough attention to this issue to really know what the issues are,” said Walczak.
If criminal justice reform becomes a factor in 2016—which could happen, given Rick Perry and Rand Paul’s leadership on the issue—then that just might change.