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Prison population, corrections budget spike during truth in sentencing
By Jessica VanEgeren
Published: 04/22/2009

When the tough-on-crime mantra was all the rage in the 1990s, Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, got caught up in the movement.

Michael Lew got caught up in it, too. As one of eight assistant chiefs of probation and parole for the state Department of Corrections, Lew was tapped to research the financial impact of a new sentencing policy being debated at the Capitol.

Known as truth in sentencing, the policy -- which had the blessing of then-Attorney General Jim Doyle -- took effect Dec. 31, 1999. It replaced the possibility of early release for good behavior, or parole, with a system where a 10-year sentence meant 10 years served. Time behind bars was followed by years out of prison under extended state supervision.

Because inmates under the then-existing parole system were only serving, on average, about 50 percent of their sentences, Lew and about a dozen colleagues estimated the truth in sentencing program would contribute to a Department of Corrections budget increase of $50 million to $70 million a year. Their estimates hit the mark.

Between 1999 and 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' budget grew 71 percent, from $700 million to $1.2 billion, or an average of $50 million a year, according to information released earlier this month by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national organization funded in part through the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Truth in sentencing is one of the reasons we have so many people in prison right now," said Lew, a 36-year veteran of the state corrections system who retired in 2006. "We are bankrupting ourselves."

The national organization further found that statewide between 2000 and 2007, the number of reported violent crimes increased by 28 percent, from 12,700 incidents to 16,296, and the prison population grew 14 percent, from 20,508 to 23,476. A majority of inmates are incarcerated because they re-offend or violate the terms of their release. In 2007, 55 percent of prison inmates had violated terms of their parole, probation or extended supervision or were re-offenders who had committed a new crime.

If a crime policy is gauged by its ability to lower crime rates and rehabilitate inmates to prevent return trips to prison, then truth in sentencing has failed. Costs are also up, threatening to become even more of a burden on an already cash-strapped state. These facts are not lost on state policy makers, who reached out last year to a national organization for policy assistance. While that group is delivering its recommendations to the Legislature this week, Governor Doyle has already put forward changes in his 2009-2011 budget, which is attempting to close a $5.2 billion deficit. The governor's plan proposes new ways for inmates who exhibit good behavior to get out of prison early. Parole, though not referred to as such, would make a comeback. Under these guidelines, roughly 1,000 inmates immediately would be ready for early release. More would be eligible in the months and years ahead.

Not surprisingly, the plan has critics, including state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, victim's rights advocates and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association.

At a press conference earlier this month, Van Hollen argued that undoing truth in sentencing by "opening up prison doors is indefensible." He said the state should instead spend money on alternatives to incarceration in appropriate cases.

But Department of Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch, who worked with Doyle on the proposals, says they are a step in the right direction.

"Inmates can go back one of two ways ... treated, with a positive attitude and a job skill, or they can go back angry," Raemisch said. "Under truth in sentencing there was no incentive for inmates to improve themselves behind bars. What's being proposed is the start of a major movement toward sentencing reform in Wisconsin."
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