More than 100 religious leaders and prison reform advocates gathered outside the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility on Wednesday to urge the state to correct flaws in the parole system, which some estimates claim costs the state $140 million per year.
The protesters were members of WISDOM, which seeks to reduce the state’s prison population to 11,000 inmates by 2015 as part of its 11×15 Campaign for Justice.
“The 11X15 campaign aims to reduce the state prison population from 22,000 to 11,000 by 2015. In fighting for this goal, WISDOM discovered a lack of accountability on issues such as parole, solitary confinement, revocation and compassionate release, among others,” wrote WISDOM in a brief.
“We acknowledge the dedicated efforts of many at the DOC. But as people committed to justice, fiscal responsibility and public safety, we insist that Governor Walker use the authority granted by the people of Wisconsin to reform this cruel, unjust, inefficient and dangerous system NOW,” the group continued.
Blacks make up only 7 percent of the population of Wisconsin, but as of 2012, black men constituted 46 percent of the state’s age 20-29 prison population. Half of all of Wisconsin’s black men in their thirties have served time in the state’s prisons, representing the highest rate of black incarceration among the states, as of 2010.
This is, in part, due to concentrated policing in minority communities and the state’s shift to “truth-in-sentencing” guidelines, which limit judicial discretion in determining punitive options. Under the administration of Gov. Scott Walker, new paroles for pre-“truth-in-sentencing” convictions dropped from 13 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2013. Parole consideration for the 2,887 currently parole-eligible prisoners, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is tied up in a labyrinth of eligibility requirements that the state prisons are not making accommodations for the inmates to satisfy and a lack of recordkeeping and accountability on the part of the state’s Department of Corrections.
Further, Wisconsin has seen a three-fold increase in its incarceration levels since 1990, and a 620 percent increase in corrections spending through 2012.
The current situation is also partly due to a parole system that allows parolees to be returned to prison for minor violations, including “technical violations” outside the prisoner’s control. Among the violations that have caused paroles to be revoked are the use of a computer or cellphone, malfunctions in GPS monitoring ankle bracelets, associating with drug dealers or other potential criminals, borrowing money, entering a bar, accepting an unapproved job offer and travelling out of state.
In response to Wednesday’s rally, DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab placed part of the blame for the situation on the courts. «The Department of Corrections is responsible for the safe and humane custody of 22,000 inmates in prisons and correctional centers and the supervision of 68,000 adult offenders on court-ordered probation, parole or extended supervision in the community,” she wrote in an email to the Journal-Sentinel. “One of our primary goals is to keep Wisconsin citizens safe.
«An offender’s supervision may be revoked if the offender violates a rule or condition of supervision. An administrative law judge makes the final revocation decision at a revocation hearing. Public safety is the primary consideration in any revocation decision.»
Staab stated that 40 percent of those whose parole was revoked were classified as violent offenders, despite the fact that the reasons for the revocations were not necessarily violent. WISDOM asserts that this classification is based on the original crime and not on current observations.
The governor has indicated that he will not support early release from prison, but is open to alternatives to prison sentencing.
The problems with the state prison system reflect a sense among Wisconsin voters that the state criminal justice system is doing, at best, an average job in rehabilitating prisoners, per a July Marquette University Law School poll. Slightly more than 41 percent of the 804 respondents felt that the state was doing a fair job, compared to nearly 22 percent who felt the state was doing a good or excellent job.
“[The voters] do have some general sense of a system that is not working the way they were promised it would work,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project at the First Congregational Church of Christ in Madison, a member of the WISDOM coalition.
“[I]n exchange for massive expenditures of money they were promised an effective correctional system that would rehabilitate people and return people to society better than they were before,” Hancock continued. “That promise has not been delivered.”