Tony Evers, Democratic lawmakers unveil bill package as 'first step' toward criminal justice reform

Tony Evers, Democratic lawmakers unveil bill package as 'first step' toward criminal justice reform

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Gov. Tony Evers and fellow Democratic lawmakers have introduced a package of bills aimed at taking the “first step” toward criminal justice reform in the state’s crowded adult prison system.

The bills would set incarceration limits for non-criminal supervision violations, expand earned release eligibility to include vocational or educational programs, and expand on a compliance credit to allow for shortened community supervision options.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Evers said the bill package likely would only move the needle slightly on the state’s rising adult prison population, which is expected to reach 25,000 inmates by 2021. He said it could, however, open the door to more bipartisan discussion on the topic — something that could prove challenging in an era where Republican and Democratic lawmakers have clashed more than they’ve come together over high-profile issues.

“At the end of the day, this has to be something that is embraced by both parties,” Evers said. “This is an issue that I think transcends Republicans and Democrats. … If we don’t take this first step we could be the last state that embraces criminal justice reform, and I just can’t imagine why we want to be in that position.”

“There are some things that we can do moving forward that will make a difference, but we do need legislation as part of that conversation,” he said.

Evers, who campaigned on a pledge to halve the state’s prison population, said it was too early to estimate how much the proposed legislation would impact the growing number of inmates across Wisconsin.

The bills

The bill package, introduced by Milwaukee Democratic lawmakers Rep. Evan Goyke and Sen. Lena Taylor, applies only to nonviolent offenders. Goyke said he will begin circulating the bill for co-sponsorship this week.

Under one bill, an individual would become eligible for parole or extended supervision if, while incarcerated, he or she completes “an educational, vocational, treatment, or other qualifying training program that is evidence-based to reduce recidivism.” It would expand on existing earned release options already available to individuals who complete alcohol or drug addiction treatment while incarcerated.

The bill also would require the Department of Corrections to evaluate and provide possible alternatives to prison for those in the state’s elderly inmate population.

Another proposed bill would flesh out conditions for revocation of an inmate’s probation, parole or extended supervision and allow for short-term sanctions as an alternative to revocation. The bill does not apply to individuals who are required to report as a registered sex offender or those who have allegedly committed a new crime.

A third bill would create a compliance credit to incentivize the completion of programming by creating avenues toward an early discharge from supervision for some offenders.

There are approximately 66,000 individuals on supervision across the state, including probation, extended supervision and parole.

Goyke said all three bills include a “reform, report and reinvest” structure and require annual reports on the effectiveness and savings, with stipulations that any cost savings be reinvested back into the programs.

The Department of Corrections’ annual budget has surpassed $1.3 billion following a 5% increase in the 2019-21 state budget.

There is not yet a fiscal estimate on the financial impact of the bill package, but Goyke said transitioning eligible non-violent offenders out of the state prison system would save money.

Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said the annual cost of keeping an adult in custody for a year is about $34,000, while it costs less than $6,000 if that same individual is under supervision.

“If we can produce citizens that work, contribute to the tax base, contribute to supporting their families, contribute to supporting their communities, why wouldn’t we do that and save money at the same time?” Carr said. “Even if your only motivation for supporting criminal justice reform is reducing the property tax levy, if that’s what turns you on, great.”

Started bipartisan

While no Republican lawmakers authored the bills, Goyke said the legislation was crafted following months of bipartisan collaboration that included Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, as well as former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have majority party leaders on these bills, but I think as we go through the halls and knock on their doors we’re going to get a lot more Republican support than we had in previous sessions,” Goyke said.

“We’re in divided government, but just because a Democrat is introducing a bill doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t or shouldn’t support it. Those elected representatives and their offices had major input into these bills.”

Darling and Schraa had not responded to requests seeking comment Wednesday.

Goyke and Schraa were prominent figures behind 2018 legislation to shutter the state’s embattled Lincoln Hills youth prison by 2021, replacing it with a less-centralized system for youth offenders. Evers last month told the State Journal that closing Lincoln Hills by the July 2021 deadline would be difficult without a major increase in funding.

Goyke said the latest bill package began in early conversations over the Lincoln Hills bill.

In September, Darling, Goyke, Schraa and Taylor sent a letter to the Legislature emphasizing the importance of criminal justice reform — specifically noting successful supervision and revocation systems in Texas and Michigan that could be replicated in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is an outlier in many ways when it comes to the criminal justice system. Three areas that are ripe for reform and will be the focal point of our agenda this session are crimeless revocations, earned release, and extended supervision,” the letter states. “Our bills will continue the trend of previous reforms backed by policies that have seen positive outcomes throughout our nation.”

An Evers spokeswoman said the bipartisan group had a meeting as recently as late October.

However, Evers and Goyke said Republican participation in the meetings stalled late last year.

“I thought the conversations were good,” Evers said. “I just think at the end of the day, the Republicans that were there had just decided that at this point in time they didn’t feel they could make this go forward.”

Carr said his department this spring plans to implement modifications to increase efficiencies and equity among supervision revocations. Efforts also are underway to reduce segregation within the state’s prison system.

Carr also described criminal justice reform as a bipartisan topic, but said the key will be finding middle ground between both parties.

“I’ve talked to every single senator in the legislature in 2019 and without exception, every single one of those individuals, regardless of their side of the aisle, have expressed a desire to see some form of criminal justice reform accomplished,” Carr said. “We just have to generate the will and the momentum to get started in the right direction in order to achieve those goals.”

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