MADISON — Wisconsin should dramatically increase the amount of money it spends on treatment programs that keep offenders with drug and alcohol addictions and mental illness out of prison, two groups said Tuesday.
The call is receiving a warm reception from some Republicans and Democrats weary of forking over roughly $1.3 billion a year to lock up Wisconsin offenders — about half of whom land back in prison after release.
WISDOM, which includes 145 congregations from 19 faiths in Wisconsin, and Human Impact Partners, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that studies the effects of public policies on communities, are recommending that the state spend $75 million a year on treatment programs and an additional $20 million a year on other supportive services.
The state currently spends just under $1 million a year on such diversion programs, according to the two groups, which conducted a yearlong study on the cost and effectiveness of so-called problem-solving courts in Wisconsin and beyond.
Most such efforts are paid for by local communities, said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, whose county has used treatment and diversion programs to keep about 3,000 offenders out of prison since 2006.
If the groups’ recommendations are adopted, Chisholm said, “We’re going to increase public safety and we’re going to do it in a way that reduces costs,” Chisholm said. “It’s a win-win.”
The authors of the report project that the benefits would include 3,100 fewer prisoners a year, 21,000 fewer jail admissions, a reduction in repeat crimes and between 1,150 and 1,619 parents who remain in the community and not separated from their children.
“We seek to change the focus of the incarceration debate in Wisconsin — away from punishment of low-risk non-violent offenders to improvement of health and community safety,” the authors said.
Although $95 million a year may sound like a lot of money, the report estimates that’s just half the cost of keeping such non-violent offenders in prison.
Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, outgoing chairman of the Senate Education and Corrections Committee, supports the recommendation. He hopes Republican lawmakers will feel the same way when they regain control of the Senate in January.
Senate Majority Leader-elect Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined comment on the idea. But the incoming Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said he would consider the recommendations, adding, “We’re always looking for cost-saving ideas.”
State Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, chairman of the Assembly Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee and a former sheriff’s deputy, said he supports the idea of increasing so-called Treatment Alternative Diversion programs.
“The data shows that TAD participants have a high level of success following program discharge, and that money invested in TAD programs yields a much greater return and could reduce our criminal justice system costs,” Bies said. “The report may be a catalyst to a discussion on how Wisconsin invests money in our criminal justice system.”
Gov. Scott Walker has indicated he wants to find ways to save money by reducing the state prison population, currently at 21,700, But spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to endorse any recommendations, saying only that the governor will submit his proposed corrections budget early next year.
The Republican governor formed the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to, among other things, find ways to cut Wisconsin’s ballooning prison population.
The council’s chairman, Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, said he supports exploring alternatives to incarceration “so long as public safety is the paramount consideration.”
“For some offenders, monitored treatment is best for society and best for the offender, in terms of both reducing recidivism and cost,” Van Hollen said. “For others, incarceration is best.”
Lehman said he particularly likes the recommendation that the state focus on keeping parents out of prison. The report cited numerous studies showing that children of incarcerated parents are less successful in school and in the workplace and more likely to land in foster care or prison.
“As a retired school teacher, I know the effects of incarcerated parents on kids,” he said, adding, “It’s important for people of faith and people who are interested in their fellow human beings to be looking at this.”
The Rev. Dennis Jacobsen, pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s crime-plagued north side, said the report offers a way out of the “mass incarceration” that has ripped apart the community he has served for 25 years. He said treatment for non-violent offenders will cut crime and help troubled neighborhoods better than the lock-’em-up approach.
“Police are trying to make these communities safer,” Jacobsen said, “but it’s not working.”