It's hard to think of a policy that is more clearly misguided than Wisconsin's criminal justice system. We spend over $1 billion a year on corrections, and the state has doubled its prison population since 1992, thanks in large part to the politics-first policies put in place by Tommy Thompson, Jim Doyle, and their number one cheerleader in the Assembly at the time, Scott Walker.
Luckily Doyle has come around on the issue, and in his last term decided that the harsh prison sentences dolled out to non-violent offenders during the 1990's did nothing more than cost the state money and destroy the lives of people who might otherwise benefit from treatment or from being left alone.
Unfortunately Tom Barrett has not. As mayor of Milwaukee, Barrett should understand the negative implications of forcing offenders, many of whom suffer from addiction, to hang out with other offenders and addicts for an extended period of time. However, the GOP message that early-release will put violent criminals back into the streets is apparently too strong to beat during a tough campaign.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Tuesday he has "serious reservations" about a new program that allows nonviolent inmates to be released early for good behavior.
Luckily he didn't say he planned to repeal it, as Walker and Neumann have pledged to do. Unlike them, he has at least made pretenses of researching the issue, by meeting with Department of Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch, the former Republican Dane County Sheriff who has made it his final mission to see the early-release program through.
Raemisch said he doesn't have much time to prove that releasing inmates early not only saves money, but makes the state a safer place. With the political landscape in flux as fall elections approach, he wants to show not only that the program has been a success, but will reap vast benefits in the future.
Under truth-in-sentencing laws, which have held sway since 1999, inmates have had no incentive to behave or better themselves, Raemisch said. In addition, the prison population faces numerous hurdles to success. Raemisch reeled off the statistics: most inmates are at a 9th-grade reading level, a 5th-grade math level, 16 percent are illiterate, 70 percent have drug or alcohol problems and 26 percent have serious mental health needs.
The last point is the most salient. While Walker has insisted that the new policy "rewards bad behavior," it in fact does the opposite. It's the old policy that offers prisoners nothing to work for except a long wait. It's counter-productive and it has been proven so in every western country. We're not talking about life-sentences getting cut to three years. We're talking about people who would be on the streets anyways getting a shot at cutting their sentences by behaving well, as well as getting treatment and training.