Enlist Scott Walker in the ‘Right-on-Crime’ movement

May 11, 2015
The Cap Times

Gov. Scott Walker could solidify his conservative credentials by signing on with the “Right on Crime” movement touted by archconservative Grover Norquist. That movement seeks to reduce prison incarceration rates, cut prison system costs, and lighten the toll taken on families, lives and neighborhoods.

Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Jeb Bush have already signed on to the initiative, as have a number of governors and dozens of other conservatives.

The “Right on Crime” movement, though started by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and promoted by conservatives, should also have strong appeal to liberals and everybody else.

The challenge is to roll back the adverse effects of “truth-in-sentencing” laws and “minimum mandatory sentences” that over the past several decades caused prison populations and prison costs to skyrocket.

Wisconsin’s rate of imprisonment is now nine times greater than in the early 1970s. It is more than twice as large as it was just two decades ago even though the violent crime rate has remained relatively constant.

Adult corrections have gobbled up an increasing share of the state’s tax revenue. In the governor’s 2015-17 budget, Corrections’ general purpose revenue expenditures will exceed by one-third the general purpose revenue going to the entire UW System.

The governor has shown little recent interest in the state’s prison system. His position is not surprising. Back in the late 1990s while a member of the state Legislature, he took the lead in being tough on crime by pushing successfully for a “truth-in-sentencing” law.

For Walker to come out now in support of the “Right on Crime” movement could be viewed as another Walker flip-flop that might injure his presidential ambitions. But it could also be seen as a sign of the governor’s personal growth and willingness to base his views on evidence rather than ideology. It could also be seen as a bold move that recognizes the large human and budgetary costs of the now-floundering tough-on-crime stance.

Among Wisconsinites, there is growing sentiment favoring prison reform. Leading this effort is an organization called WISDOM, a statewide coalition of faith-based organizations pushing for social justice. Among its prominent current concerns is prison reform and reducing the high rate of incarceration for African-Americans.

In October 2014, WISDOM issued a blueprint for ending mass incarceration in Wisconsin. It called for efforts to keep people from entering prison, provide justice for the people already in prison, and help people who were once in prison stay out of prison.

Walker could have incorporated one or all of these goals in his 2015-17 budget. Doing so could have marked the beginning of a concerted effort to reduce, without endangering public safety, the state’s $1.2 billion budget devoted to the Department of Corrections.

Walker’s budget does virtually nothing to rein in this cost or reduce the number of prison inmates.

Wisconsin’s adult correction system, which now houses more than 22,000 prisoners, is expensive. The annual “operational cost” per inmate is $33,000. With the addition of administrative costs, the per-inmate cost rises to $38,000 per year.

— This $38,000 figure is only $5,000 less than Wisconsin’s annual per capita income of $43,000.

— The $38,000 figure is more than 12 times the annual per-student level of taxpayer support of approximately $3,000 for undergraduate education in the UW System.

— Taxpayer support for four years of college in the University of Wisconsin System totals about $12,000. Taxpayer support for four years in Wisconsin prisons comes to more than $150,000.

— Most UW System students graduate in four years. The average (median) prison sentence is longer, six and one-half years, and hence even more expensive.

Several measures for reducing prison costs and the number of prison inmates could be implemented quickly. One is to direct parole boards to consider for release the nearly 3,000 inmates who have long been eligible for parole. Another is to institute a more generous policy in granting pardons.

Fully funding the state’s Treatment Alternatives and Diversions Fund could keep several thousand people out of prison each year and many more from ever going to jail. Implementing successful approaches used in other states to handle parole violations could reduce the number of former inmates sent back to prison again.

If Walker’s proposal to cut the UW System budget is a “bold” move, why not propose a more enlightened “bold” move — that of reforming Wisconsin’s expensive and dysfunctional prison system?

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