ALEC, For-Profit Criminal Justice, and Wisconsin

profitprisonsAs the first half of 2011 has revealed, Wisconsin is not a moderate "purple" state, but a state divided between staunchly "blue" progressives and righteous "red" right-wingers. That rift is particularly apparent in legislative conflicts over the criminal justice system, a debate spurred by corporate interests represented in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and perpetuated by ALEC legislative members, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Wisconsin's history and public policy reflects the red/blue divide. It is the state that gave birth to the Republican Party, which supported slavery abolition, and the John Birch Society, which opposed the civil rights movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, the state elected both progressive hero Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and right-wing extremist Joe McCarthy. It is the state that elected both former Senator Russ Feingold (D) and Representative Paul Ryan (R).

Wisconsin also produced Paul Weyrich, who in 1973 co-founded both the Heritage Foundation and ALEC (and in subsequent years, Free Congress and Moral Majority). Weyrich's ALEC, it seems, has been a factory for many of the state's most recent right-wing policy initiatives.

Wisconsin's Progressive Traditions Resist For-Profit Prisons and Bail-Bonds

Elements of Wisconsin's criminal justice system reflect Wisconsin's progressive traditions. Since 1979, Wisconsin has been ahead of most U.S. states in banning commercial bail-bonding (46 states still use it), joining the rest of the world in recognizing the practice as unacceptable (it is criminalized in countries like England and Canada). Posting another person's bail for profit has a record of corrupting the sentencing process, and puts the decision of whether an accused person goes free in the hands of a profit-oriented business. Wisconsin has led the way in exploring evidence-based, pre-trial release alternatives; according to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm, Wisconsin counties like Milwaukee have been working with the Vera Institute for years to "get money out of the bail process altogether," using evidence-based practices "to determine who should not be released and who can be released under supervision," with necessary intervention to protect public safety.

Additionally, unlike 25 other states, Wisconsin has resisted the move toward establishing for-profit prisons. Nationwide, private prisons have been a growth industry: the number of persons incarcerated over the past decade has increased 16 percent, but the number held in private correctional facilities has increased 33 percent on the state level and 120 percent on the federal level. Meanwhile, the two largest private prison operators, Correction Corporations of America and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), raked in a combined $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010. According to the Justice Policy Institute, "as revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration."

Both the for-profit prison industry and the for-profit bail-bond industries have done so through ALEC, the national organization that facilitates corporate-sponsored "model bills" for legislators to introduce in their states.

ALEC and For-Profit Criminal Justice

The American Bail Coalition (ABC), the for-profit bail bond industry's national organization and lobbying wing, calls ALEC the industry's "life preserver". ABC pays for ALEC membership, and a representative sits on the ALEC corporate board (the "Private Enterprise Board") as well as ALEC's Executive Committee. The trade group boasts that "during its two decade involvement with ALEC, ABC has written 12 model bills fortifying the commercial bail industry."

The nation's largest private prison operator CCA is also an ALEC member and funder, and pays for a seat on the "Public Safety Task Force" that approves ALEC model legislation dealing with crime and penalties. Since the late 1980s and 1990s, ALEC has created model bills that lengthen sentences, which have dramatically increased incarceration rates, and bills that privatize prisons, putting more of those inmates under the control of for-profit corporations.

Wisconsin politicians have long ties to ALEC. Former Governor Tommy Thompson was involved in ALEC's early years. Milwaukee's groundbreaking "school choice" program was based on ALEC model legislation. ALEC alum Scott Walker's first act upon becoming governor was to introduce an omnibus "tort reform" bill mirroring many ALEC bills. But, the state's progressive traditions have thus far trumped efforts by ALEC's Wisconsin legislators to open the state to commercial bail-bonding and private prison industries. But they are still trying.

ALEC Legislators Try Opening Wisconsin to Bail-Bonding

In 2003, Wisconsin Rep. Scott Suder (R-69) introduced a bill to reinstate commercial bail-bonding. Suder was a longtime ALEC alum and former co-chair of the ALEC "Criminal Justice Task Force," which was also co-chaired by representatives of ABC (formerly known as the National Association of Bail Companies).* At the time, editorial boards from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal wrote in opposition to the Suder-sponsored plan. In response, ALEC board member and American Bail Coalition Chair William B. Carmichael wrote an op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal defending commercial bail bonds. Carmichael also donated to Suder's campaign the previous year.

That effort failed, but this June Rep. Robin Vos (R-63), the new state chair of ALEC in Wisconsin, squeezed a last-minute provision into the state budget that would return for-profit bail bondsmen to the state. The American Bail Coalition had one lobbyist operating since the beginning of the year and registered a second lobbyist in the state on June 1, just as Wisconsin's Joint Finance Committee convened.

Governor Scott Walker vetoed the bail-bond provision, citing the need for a fuller discussion on the matter, but ALEC State Chair Rep. Vos said "there's no doubt" the proposal would be reintroduced. According to American Bail Coalition Executive Director Dennis Bartlett, Walker supports commercial bail-bonding in Wisconsin; this is no surprise in light of Walker's long support for the ALEC agenda.

ALEC Alumni Scott Walker and For-Profit Prisons

Current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a proud ALEC member when he was in the state legislature. Among the ALEC bills he introduced were "truth in sentencing" and several ALEC-inspired bills to privatize the state's prison system; these bills had been approved by the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force (of which the for-profit prison company Corrections Corporation of America is a member, and at times the co-chair). Since taking office, Governor Walker has continued to push these ALEC-supported "criminal justice" efforts.

In 1997, then-Representative Walker introduced (and the legislature passed) the ALEC "truth in sentencing" act, which requires inmates serve their full sentence without options for parole or supervised release. The law takes away incentives for prisoners to reduce prison time through good behavior and participation in counseling, and eliminates the ability for judges and parole boards to decide that the financial and social costs of keeping a particular person incarcerated no longer furthers public safety goals. The state estimated that the first 21 months after the law took effect would require 990 inmates to spend 18,384 additional months in jail, costing taxpayers an extra $41 million. In the seven years after the law took effect, Wisconsin's prison population increased 14%, with no correlative public safety benefit or additional decline in crime rates. Further, the annual budget for the state prison system increased from $700 million in 1999 to $1.2 billion in 2009, becoming the third-largest expenditure in the 2009-2011 state budget.

At the time, "[t]here was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement" in the crafting of the bill, said Walter Dickey, a former head of Wisconsin's prison system and current University of Wisconsin Law Professor, and who had paid close attention to the truth-in-sentencing debate.

During this period of growing prison populations, then-Representative Scott Walker introduced several bills between 1997 and 1999 that would allow private prisons in Wisconsin, including one to privatize state prison operations (see the ALEC bill here), and another allowing private corrections companies to open prisons in Wisconsin to house inmates from other states (see the ALEC bill here). Walker noted in 1998 that longtime ALEC member Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) wanted to expand into Wisconsin. While those bills did not pass, some inmates were contracted-out to private prisons in other states, and CCA has registered lobbyists in the state ever since.

"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker told American Radio Works in 2002. "And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation." Those statistics, though, were critiqued by criminologists as unreliable and intended to persuade rather than educate: Walker said that he and fellow ALEC members relied on an ALEC report crediting Virginia's truth-in-sentencing law with a five-year drop in crime, but crime dropped in ALL states in the 1990s, regardless of whether a state passed tough-on-crime laws like truth-in-sentencing.

Dickey said in 2002 it is "shocking" that lawmakers would write sentencing policy with help from ALEC, a group that gets funding from, and supposedly "expertise" from a private prison corporation.

"I don't know that they know anything about sentencing," he said. "They know how to build prisons, presumably, since that's the business they're in. They don't know anything about probation and parole. They don't know about the development of alternatives. They don't know about how public safety might be created and defended in communities in this state and other states."

(See this graphic from American Radio Works explaining the CCA-ALEC-Wisconsin sentencing law connection)

The Wisconsin state legislature apparently recognized the folly of truth in sentencing and rolled-back aspects of the law between 2001 and 2009. When Scott Walker became governor, he reversed this progress and pushed for legislation fully restoring the ALEC corporation-supported truth in sentencing, despite the costs to taxpayers and despite claiming Wisconsin was "broke." In early July, Governor Walker's office released a statement supporting expanded use of prison labor, another idea promoted in ALEC bills. Some observers have speculated that private prisons are next.

ALEC Exposed

Almost always drafted outside of the state with little or no input from state residents (but significant input from corporate interests), ALEC bills have made substantial changes to laws in all 50 states and in some ways determined how state taxpayer dollars are allocated. The full list of legislative membership in ALEC is not public, and legislators introduce ALEC bills in the legislator's own name. ALEC conferences allow elected officials to hobnob with some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, often behind closed doors and without public scrutiny. This secrecy has prevented state residents from holding their elected leaders accountable for passing laws that serve out-of-state corporate interests at the expense of the individuals that live, work, and vote in the state.

ALEC Exposed, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, has made available an archive of analyzed ALEC "model bills" to give citizens the tools to make informed decisions and fully participate in their state democracy. One way state residents can use these tools is to better understand the origin of for-profit bail-bond and for-profit prison laws in their state, and whose interests are being served by the politicians supporting these bills. Please visit ALEC

*ALEC does not have an explicit "model bill" to re-open a state to bail-bonding, but that is likely because only four states prohibit the practice -- there would be little reason to create a "model" that is inapplicable to the vast majority of states. Instead, ALEC allows the bail-bond industry to rub shoulders with Wisconsin legislators, then pitch the "benefits" of the practice and perhaps offer support for their election campaigns. Once the ALEC legislator successfully breaks-open Wisconsin for bail-bonding, they can go ahead and introduce ALEC "model bills" to further support the industry.


Glad to see this article regarding commercial bail bonding and more importantly the efforts in Wisconsin to reintroduce that practice there - by ALEC and the ABC through Vos and Walker. Thankfully as you noted, Wisconsin rolled back much of the TIS laws over the years...only to see an ALEC Alum take over the reins of that state and put them back in place. This clearly demonstrates the concerns and interests of the Wisconsin citizens were placed on the back seat to ALEC and their corporate interests through Walker. Criminal Justice laws are what helped incarcerate that 2.4 million Americans since ALEC began introducing their "Model Legislation" in 1980 to both incarcerate and privatize prisons for the benefit of their corporate members. Much of their CJ "Acts" revolve around implementing tough minimum mandatory laws used to incarcerate more and the TIS and abolishing of state and federal parole to keep prisoners longer. They have been so successful that it led to the expansion through their Immigration legislation in 2009-10, developed to fill more beds and increase profits off the backs of those who come here to work and seek a better life. Kudos to The Nation and Center for Media and Democracy for helping shine the light on this nefarious and anti-democratic cabal. Hopefully that light will drive them from our sight and political arenas posthaste.

I completely support the article and the observations. The Koch Bros puppeteering through the governors they bought is doing more to inflame the Class Warfare that is now rampant in those states and across the nation. The denial of Republican voters to see through these corrupt policies is the most frightening aspect of the entire debacle. How do you have a logical conversation with an idiot? I get too many updates from organizations like CMD to read them all and usually just go for the headlines or highlights. With writers like Fischer I will take a few more minutes to read this informative reporting so I can share with others who have the intelligence to see that cancer has to be excised at the source, not just treat the symptoms.

I understood many intelligent people's not paying attention to Koch and ALEC. We are inundated with nutty conspiracy theories, until we lose patience; it appears to have discouraged us from looking closely at the real conspiracy. After the release of the Model Laws, though, I would have thought anyone reading it would understand, and Americans would be outraged. Or have we lost the capacity for outrage?

Scott Walker remembers creating jobs as assemblyman in Wisconsin . It was easy with ALEC. 32000 UNION public sector jobs. It is not as easy this time with out using your tax dollars. Scott Walker has created ALL Wisconsin`s budget problems working for ALEC. In 1997 Walker and Prosser as state assemblymen championed for ALEC with truth in sentencing telling the legislatures it would not cost a dime. This was to give judges not parole boards the control over sentencing. Then Walker filibustered to stop sentencing changes after the fact misleading ALL the legislatures. With out the sentencing changes Wisconsin`s prisons quadrupled over night. Most people sentenced to 2 years now had to serve as much as 6o years. As the Pray for justice Blog shows . Stopping just a percentage of these long sentences Wisconsin would save 707 million per year in Milwaukee County alone. Wisconsin could have free tuition colleges. This shows Wisconsin has added 200 billion of the state budget since 1997 . Not including the building new or remodeling of 71 courthouses & 71 county jails & 273 police stations and dozens of prisons 28 billion plus interest. The total is over 70 BILLION plus the 130 Billion spent by social services to support prisoners families because the bread winner was a political prisoner as US Att gen Eric Holder explained. Then farming out prisoners in several states until the courts realized it was not allowed in the Wisconsin constitution. Wisconsin then hired 32000 union public sector workers to fill the jobs housing the prisoners from deputies , judges, district attorneys all owe Walker for creating there jobs. 32000 UNION PUBLIC SECTOR JOBS. The swat teams of all 72 counties cost 3 to 5 million and they have never saved ONE life. They have cost dozens of lives in Wisconsin. Milwaukee county alone cost taxpayers over 3.8 billion or a half million tax dollars per day to house these EXTRA prisoners. Wisconsin claims it has 24,000 prisoners compared to Minnesota`s 5500. Wisconsin`s corrections population is 104,000 with over 27,000 prisons in Milwaukee county alone . In 1995 Milwaukee county had less than 1000 prisoners . They now have 27 times more prisoners under Walkers law. Triple per capita in any other state . Is Scott Walker moving Wisconsin forward making Wisconsin by far the largest prison state in the world per capita ? Walker has always used fussy numbers. Lets get to the truth. lets end these Rico act criminal rackettering regimes. This has caused thousands to form gangs to protect themselves for these perverts. This has made Wisconsin a dangerous place for many. They fear the police regimes. This is Wisconsin`s Holocost. The feds must step in and arrest every member of the state criminal regimes. Starting with ALL the judges like Prosser who have never judged just rubber stamped. If we had just one honest judge in Wisconsin this would end. Wisconsin is the police state thanks to ALEC and there puppets pretending to be justice systems. This your reason for budget problems in Wisconsin. Big spender big government Scott Walker. These policies have thousands in jail because of guilt by association because they are gang members. So if not for double standards Walker would be in a jail. How many of his associates are in jail that refused to snitch on their boss. UW Marquette did this study. Pray for justice in Wisconsin also has more. Google it. 392 NUNS signed Walkers recall petitions for reason. They are True Christians.This clearly shows you must leave Wisconsin to find a honest cop, judge, or a district attorney. They are all kingpins for ALEC. Any grand jury would convict every member of Wisconsin`s criminal justice regimes on this evidence alone. Honesty and justice is a myth in the just us system in Wisconsin all thanks to Scott Walker and David Prosser. ALEC advanced Prosser with a judgship and Walker with the Governor job. These evil people hurt millions of good people. A greedy few harming us all. The Hoover files show IBM, GM, FORD, KOCH and Prescott Bush financed and helped Hilter. J Edgar Hoover called them ALL traitors. Mainstream media now ackknowledges Bush financed Hitler. These are now ALL ALEC members now helping Scott Walker. So much for democracy.

Thank you for taking the time to look into all of the above, and taking the time to post the information. My state, too, has a horrid history of prisoner abuse. I live in Alabama. Our state, though, even though RIDICULOUSLY deep red, is beginning to recognize the futility and expense of warehousing prisoners. At the time of this writing, they are still (of course) charging, processing, and warehousing African American men, but that now has a more institutional feel to it. The GOP doesn't want African Americans to vote, ever, so fully 1/3 of AA men have criminal records in Alabama. Nirvana for GOP. Disenfranchises fully 1/3 AA men, in one whack. Even with that particular GOP benefit, our State is trying to be more sensible about locking up absolutely everybody. Really, when it comes right down to it, Alabama doesn't have the money. My question, even for goofball Walker, who I agree is a dumb*ss. WHY is he locking everybody up? What about that precious budget he lies about all the time? I don't get it. What's the bragging point here? I'm serious - I really want to understand what he is doing. Usually their twisted motives are clear. Thanks, CamelotK

It's easy to lock someone up who can not afford to defend themselves guilty or not. There is a clean sweep for election years,"Tough on crime" wins votes and low to middle class historically vote a certain way... oh and if you are incarcerated government takes your right to vote!