Walker's Costly Perpetuation of Prejudicial Corrections Policies

As CMD has previously reported, Governor Walker's budget bill will have a negative impact on Wisconsin's populations of color, especially in regards to perpetuating Wisconsin's atrocious record of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Walker's effort to prolong prison sentences will also result in increased costs not reflected in the budget, at the expense of spending on education and health.

Yes, Racial Disparities Are Relevant to the Budget Battle

Last Saturday's Exposing Colorlines event at the state Capitol aimed to increase awareness of how Wisconsin GOP policies impact people of color, and in reporting on the event, right-wing blogger and University of Wisconsin Law School professor Ann Althouse stooped to a new low in her efforts to deride the Wisconsin's protests as "far-left thuggery." Her blog entry on Saturday's positive and energetic event had the caption "Wisconsin Protests Descend Into the Racial," as if focusing on how the bill affects non-white people means we are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Althouse includes a video of protesters quoting the statistic that African-Americans are only 6 percent of Wisconsin's population, but 48 percent of the incarcerated population, the worst rate in the country. She seems to imply that this issue is irrelevant to the larger debate over Walker's budget and surrounding legislation, the work of "opportunistic" and "muddle-headed lefties" who have "descended" upon the Capitol in the wake of the more-legitimate cause of collective bargaining. Despite Althouse's condescension, the issue of racial disparities in Wisconsin's criminal justice system is absolutely relevant to the current debate.

These complex disparities arise from practices embedded in law enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing, and Walker's budget eliminates funding for the first program to track and remedy this racial injustice. That program, an effort aimed at racial profiling that only took effect in January, finally implemented recommendations first made in 1999 by a task force appointed by Wisconsin's last Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson, and reiterated in 2008 by a Democrat-appointed commission. State Bar President James C. Boll, Jr. said "[t]he data collection just began this year. At best, to repeal this requirement now would signal that the Legislature has concluded, without any empirical basis, that racial profiling does not exist in Wisconsin or is not a significant problem. The State Bar of Wisconsin believes this is the wrong approach." Not only does Walker's budget abandon efforts to remedy racial profiling, it lengthens sentences and spurns rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration, reinforcing Wisconsin's racial disparities and increasing costs beyond what is reflected in the budget.

Walker's Budget Will Unnecessarily Lengthen Prison Sentences

Walker's budget restores Truth in Sentencing, an unsuccessful and expensive program passed in 1997 that requires inmates serve their whole sentence. In recent years, most states have been adopting early-release programs that, according to Marquette Law Professor Michael O'Hear, reflect an understanding that inmates can be rehabilitated under the supervision of corrections personnel. Wisconsin had been one of those states but will regress under Governor Walker's budget. Walker hopes to eliminate early release measures favored by District Attorneys and the State Bar. His budget dumps the "positive adjustment" program, where inmates can reduce their prison sentences through good behavior and a clean prison record, and the "earned release" program, which allows a court to sentence eligible persons to an intensive six-month rehabilitative program designed to reduce their chance of reoffending upon release.

Walker's Regressive Approach to Incarceration Will Cost Taxpayers

Throughout the so-called budget debate, Governor Walker has repeated the mantra that "Wisconsin is broke." Corrections spending, despite being Wisconsin's third-largest general fund program, will likely increase under Walker's budget at the expense of education and healthcare.

Walker's move will lengthen the duration of criminal sentences, amounting to a functional increase in taxpayer spending not reflected in the budget. Each extra day a person spends in jail costs taxpayers almost $88. Each year, they cost the state $32,000.

Spending on incarceration is not a function of criminality, but of policy priorities. Wisconsin's crime rate is 17 percent lower than the rest of the country and violent crime is 40 percent lower than the national rate. And Wisconsin has options other than incarceration for those that do commit crimes. For example, Wisconsin has two-and-a-half times as many people in prison as neighboring Minnesota, even though Viking Country has more people on parole or in community-based corrections. And because those alternative approaches cost twenty times less than incarceration, Minnesota spends significantly less than Wisconsin on corrections.

Walker's policy priorities are not only expensive and discriminatory, but run against public opinion. A recent poll by the Pew Center on the States shows that voters strongly support the measures Walker reverses. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that they would favor reducing prison time in order to close budget deficits. Ninety percent accepted the idea of reducing prison stays by six months for low-risk offenders who behave well. Eighty-six percent agreed with the proposition that "We have too many low-risk, nonviolent offenders in prison. We need alternatives to incarceration that cost less and save our expensive prison space for violent and career criminals."

Most significantly, the Pew poll shows that voters strongly prefer cutting corrections spending than education spending, with 71 percent saying it is "strongly not acceptable" to reduce K-12 funding compared to 27 percent against prison spending cuts. Walker's budget reverses these spending priorities, cutting almost $900 million for public education and implementing policies that will increase corrections spending and reinforce racial disparities in incarceration; he also cuts social services that can help promote lower crime rates.

It should come as little surprise that Walker is pursuing an ideological agenda at odds with public opinion, considering how he and Wisconsin Republicans have managed to ignore the largest protests in Wisconsin history. But as Walker and the Wisconsin GOP affirmatively attack Wisconsin's poor, middle class, and people of color, let's hope all Wisconsinites come to recognize their common ground.