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A New Focus Can End Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin

In June, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said that the “challenges in terms of people being incarcerated for relatively low offenses is not a significant issue in the state of Wisconsin.”

Mark Rice

I respectfully disagree.

Wisconsin state Department of Corrections (DOC) data demonstrate that imprisoning individuals for relatively low offenses is a serious problem. A recent DOC report shows that crimeless revocations accounted for about half of all new admissions to Wisconsin prisons over the last 15 years.

A crimeless revocation occurs when the DOC re-incarcerates an individual on parole, probation or extended supervision for violating rules of supervision that do not involve new crimes. Public officials in Wisconsin regularly imprison individuals for minor violations such as unauthorized computer or cell phone use, crossing county lines, missing appointments, failing alcohol and drug tests and entering bars.

The 2014 DOC inmate profile also suggests that 33 percent of people in state prisons never committed a violent crime.

The story of Hector Cubero illustrates the need to reform Wisconsin’s unjust revocation policies. In 2012, a judge revoked Cubero’s parole because he gave a tattoo to a teenager. Although Cubero adjusted well to life on the outside, he could now spend the rest of his life in prison because of this one rule violation.

Cases such as this are not rare in Wisconsin. In recent years, the state consistently imprisoned more than 4,000 people each year for rule violations.

More on Criminal Justice Reform and Mass Incarceration

Wisconsin imprisons many Black men for relatively minor offenses. This plays a central role in explaining why the state incarcerates Black men at a higher rate than any other state. About half of all Blacks that the DOC sent to prison over the last 15 years did not get convicted of new crimes.

Instead, public officials imprisoned these individuals for violating rules of supervision.

Based on my analysis and using an estimate from the Vera Institute of Justice, which shows the average annual cost to incarcerate a person in Wisconsin, state taxpayers regularly pay more than $150 million per year to imprison people for crimeless revocations. In recent years, Wisconsin began to spend more money on corrections than on its public university system.

The state could have saved more than enough to offset the recent $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system by eliminating the practice of incarcerating people for crimeless revocations.

Wisconsin policymakers can learn from several other states that reformed revocation policies.

North Carolina, Hawaii and Washington implemented a new strategy called quick dips in which public officials send those who are on probation and parole and who violate technical conditions of supervision to jail for no more than four days, instead of immediately sending them to prison for years.

Alabama and Nebraska also enacted laws that limit the amount of time individuals can be imprisoned for rule violations. Evaluations suggest that these reforms can reduce levels of incarceration, save taxpayers money and decrease crime.

In 2011, California ended the practice of sending people to prison for crimeless revocations. This policy prevented the incarceration of 20,000 individuals over the last four years. Evaluations of this policy show that it had no effect on violent crime in the state.

In April 2014, Wisconsin legislators passed a swift and certain sanctions law modeled after the policy in Hawaii and other states. This law requires the DOC to develop a system of community-based sanctions.

This legislation could help to reduce levels of incarceration for crimeless revocations, but public officials have not implemented it yet.

WISDOM, a network of congregation-based organizations that work on social justice issues in Wisconsin, raised awareness of the state’s unreasonable revocation policies over the last few years through press conferences and presentations in communities.

Our organization held a press conference on the state’s failures in revocations last August. Revocation policy reform is an important part of WISDOM’s blueprint to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin.

WISDOM has recommended several revocation policy reforms. The recommendations include:

– Creating community revocation panels that would inject fairness and community oversight into the process,

– Placing a cap of 30 days on the amount of time a person can be incarcerated for the most common types of rule violations,

– Eliminating DOC authority to imprison those on probation and parole for rule violations before the judge upholds the revocation decision, and

– Counting good time served on supervision as time served.

Also, in response to the concerns WISDOM raised about crimeless revocations, four Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a bill that would limit the number of people who could be sent back to prison for technical violations to 3,000 per year.

This legislation would have three huge benefits. It would reduce the number of individuals being sent back to prison by 1,000 per year. It would make the DOC refine its priorities. It would save taxpayers more than $35 million dollars per year. The implementation of this bill would be a step in the right direction.

Crimeless revocations play a central role in the maintenance of mass incarceration in Wisconsin. Incarcerating individuals for rule violations that do not involve new crimes destroys lives, contributes to crowding in jails and adds nothing to public safety in the vast majority of cases. It is also fiscally irresponsible.

Wisconsin legislators should begin to invest the $150 million that they waste each year to imprison people for crimeless revocations on programs that attack the root causes of crime.

Mark Rice, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, chairs the Revocations Workgroup of WISDOM, a faith-based organization in Wisconsin that is working to end mass incarceration. He also helps lead Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), a group of formerly-incarcerated people who drive WISDOM’s criminal justice reform campaign. In addition, he serves as a board member of Project RETURN, which helps men and women leaving prison make a positive and permanent return to our community. WISDOM is a member of Gamaliel, a Chicago-based network of nonpartisan faith-based organizations. 

One Response to "A New Focus Can End Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin"

  1. camy matthay  August 20, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Thanks for a great article. Recent data crunching revealed that there are extreme disparities between Black people and White people returning to prison from Dane County due to crimeless revocations, and these disparities are worse than all other types of reasons that people get sent to prison. Dane County's disparity rates between Black and White people are about twice as large as the comparable statewide disparities. More details below:

    Black people accounted for 56 percent of all people sent to Wisconsin prisons from Dane County due to a crimeless revocation in 2014.
    - This rate is about 13 times (13X) what you would expect compared to the population of Black adults. And this rate is about twice the comparable statewide rate.
    - Crimeless revocations in Dane County have consistently had a higher racial disparity for Black people over the last 15 years, when compared to all other types of admissions to Wisconsin prisons.
    - In 2014, Black people were about 25 times (25X) more likely to go to prison for a crimeless revocation than White people, when compared to their share of the adult population. Again, this disparity is about twice the comparable statewide rate.


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