Late last week the Wisconsin State Assembly voted along party lines to approve a bill that would, if approved by the Senate and signed by Governor Scott Walker, require probation and parole agents in Wisconsin to push for revocation and arrest of anyone on supervision who may have been involved in a felony or misdemeanor crime during supervision.
For decades, Community Corrections officers have had discretionary powers in dealing with issues involving probationers or parolees. There have been times when a person on supervision has been involved in minor offenses and has not been revoked because the supervising agent did not believe revocation was necessary or warranted.
The Republican-led State Assembly wants to have agents push for revocation instead of offering alternatives. Revocation hearings do not carry the same burdens of proof or legal rights as a regular court proceeding. Revocation hearings are heard by an Administrative Law Judge, a person who is not the same entity as a Circuit Court Judge. Administrative Law Judges are primarily attorneys who represent the Department of Corrections and, when coupled with a recommendation for revocation from a parole agent, creates the appearance of a stacked deck against an offender facing revocation.
Expanding revocation criteria is almost certain to add to the already overcrowded prison population in Wisconsin. Walker, in recent years, has greatly reduced the Parole Commission, which has slowed inmate releases and helped to create great congestion in the system.
To accommodate a potential increase in prison population, the State Assembly also approved up to $350 million in available funding for new prisons in Wisconsin and approved the hiring of 54 new prosecutors.
Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) said that this bill is about supporting victims of crime last week. Ott did not respond to further inquiries from Madison365 nor has data been provided that supports the assertion that expanding prison helps heal crime victims.
But many community organizers who work with men and women who have been in prison as well as help heal people who have been the victims of crime say that investing $350 back in to the community will do more for crime victims than building new prisons ever could.
“Those funds could have been invested into community services, public defender services, affordable housing would strengthen our communities,” Madison Urban Ministry (MUM) Executive Director Linda Ketcham told Madison365. “Sadly, this legislature seems intent on destroying lives and communities impacted by the criminal justice system. We are moving backward and this bill removes any discretion on the part of an agent who has been working with an individual who may otherwise feel community services are more appropriate.”
Last week in Madison, the Urban League announced its plan to try to raise $2 million with which they would be able to provide 1,500 more jobs to 1,500 families. Part of Urban League’s work is with ex-offenders who are trying to not only rebuild their lives but strengthen the communities around them.
In August 2017, Madison College received grant money in the amount of $3.5 million with which they are building a state-of-the-art new campus center on Madison’s south side, in the heart of one of the neediest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. That venture will create job training, education and bridges for an at-risk community that will give hundreds of people the tools they need to either not commit crimes or rehabilitate their lives after being in the system.
Those two ventures together cost $5.5 million dollars and the ripple effect they have will impact potentially thousands of families and individuals. And, if they had the money Wisconsin sets aside to build new cages for human beings, they’d still have $344.5 million left to spend.
“Time and time again the things that prove most successful in lowering crime and incarceration are investments in people and community,” Ketcham says. “$350 million could help shore up public schools, it could help build affordable housing, fund drug treatment programs. All of those would strengthen our state and lower our crime rate.”
Reverend Jerry Hancock, who was a prosecutor for decades and now runs a prison ministry focused on restorative justice as well as victim impact, says the answer isn’t a new prison. It’s fewer prisoners.
“Before we build any new prisons in Wisconsin we should carefully consider releasing several thousand prisoners who are currently in prison and don’t need to be there,” Hancock told Madison365. “This could be done safely by using standards the DOC itself already uses. It would increase rather than decrease public safety. The idea of expanding revocations goes absolutely in the wrong direction. We need fewer prisoners, not more prisons.”
Hancock said research shows that even heavily conservative, prison-filled states like Texas and Kansas are moving in the direction of alternatives to prison and use of restorative justice.
“There’s nothing in this legislation that makes communities healthier,” Hancock said. “Preventing crime victims comes by making communities healthier.”
In that regard it seems dubious that hiring 54 new prosecutors will make communities safer or stem the tide of prison overcrowding.
Does Wisconsin need 54 new prosecutors? Some may question whether 54 new prosecutors would have as great an impact on creating a healthy community as 54 more Urban League workers. Or 54 more organizations like Linda Ketcham’s Madison Urban Ministry. 54 more people like Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson. Or 54 more people like Jerry Hancock helping heal broken lives and prevent crimes from happening in the first place.