The tough-on-crime politicking that swept the nation in the 1980's and 90's has mostly subsided. Strict sentencing policies that sought to crack down on drug use and other non-violent offenses, such as the Rockefeller Laws in New York, are finally coming under review and gradually getting repealed.
Yet Wisconsin, whose "Truth-in-Sentencing" legislation, enacted at the end of the last decade, eliminated probation and mandated minimum sentences for a variety of offenses, is still reluctant to review a policy that has led to an explosion in prison population over the last 15 years.
"It hasn't gotten any saner in Wisconsin," says Rep. Joe Parisi (D-Madison), who chairs the Assembly Committee on Corrections. Parisi is the Assembly's leading advocate for reform in the criminal justice system. In an interview this morning, Parisi said that good crime policy is hard to get when tough-on-crime slogans work so well in 30 second advertisements.
"It's a low-risk proposition to go after offenders. Especially felons. They can't vote," he says.
A prime example would be the governor's race, in which candidates from both parties have distanced themselves from minor reforms which allow non-violent offenders to earn early release from prison on good behavior. In addition, the Democratic candidate for governor, Tom Barrett, has put out two advertisements decrying "Cadillac health care" for state prisoners.
"We pay for Cadillac health care for convicted felons," says Barrett in an ad touting his plan to cut state spending.
Parisi is not impressed.
"I don't know why he's doing this stuff. I don't know who he is trying to appeal to. Talking about prisoner health care isn't a solution to any of the problems we're facing right now," he says, adding that in the past he has been impressed with some of Barrett's literature on corrections.
Several weeks ago Rep. Mark Pocan hypothesized that the rhetoric against hormone treatment for transexual prisoners was the result of a poll done by an inexperienced staffer. Parisi concurs, and believes that type of process guides crime policy more than anything else.
"People are looking for anecdotes that poll well," he says.
Granted, Barrett railing against expensive health care for prisoners is the rare example of a politician proposing spending cuts for the corrections system. Between 1992 an 2004, spending on corrections rose 267 percent. As of last year, Wisconsin spends almost as much on its prison system as it does on its universities (budget summaries here).
Parisi is quick to admit that he doesn't have all the answers, and says politicians' reluctance to say they "don't know" is part of the problem surrounding criminal justice policy. However, when pressed for potential solutions to better the system, he offered a few specifics.
First, the female prison needs to be completely revamped. "Female prisoners have a very different profile than male prisoners...the vast majority were physically or sexually abused as children." Because of the childhood trauma, many young women are particularly vulnerable to drug abuse and prostitution.
In addition, Parisi supports eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and returning discretion to judges and juries. "Each case is different; each offender is different," he says.
Many supporters of prison reform point to Minnesota, which has an almost identical crime rate but imprisons many less offenders. Some of the statistics can be misleading, since the Gopher State relegates more offenses to the local and county level, whereas here the state houses the majority of inmates. Nevertheless, Minnesota has many more offenders on probation or under supervision, instead of behind bars.
Community supervision is much more effective than prison, says Parisi. "It costs on average about $3000 instead of $30,000." More importantly, offenders preserve the crucial family and community links that they lose when they're shipped to prison often far away from home.
For instance, the impending closure of the Ethan Allen School for juvenile delinquents threatens to make visitation between the inmates, most of whom are from Southeastern Wisconsin, and their parents, despite a bus service for parents.
In addition, Parisi believes some form of decriminalization for drugs at least marijuana is needed.
Scott Walker has pledged to repeal earned early release if he is elected governor. Tom Barrett has said it needs to be reviewed. What actually advances will depend largely on who controls the legislature. If the GOP manages to win back both houses, the tough-on-crime mantra will likely continue to guide crime policy.