One of Governor Scott Walker’s first bills that he signed in 2011, thanks to the assistance of the new Republican Legislature, was a criminal justice bill that ensured “Truth-In-Sentencing” for prison inmates. One of the main changes this bill made was that only non-violent inmates who had a drug or alcohol issues were eligible for an Earned Release sentence.

An Earned Release sentence allows inmates to have a portion of their prison sentence converted to parole once they have completed mandatory programming such as cognitive behavioral therapy or drug treatment. For some reason, Republicans removed eligibility for non-violent offenders without drug or alcohol issues.

Given this history, it was surprising to see Republican members of the powerful Joint Committee on Finance, including co-chair Rep. Nygren (R-Marinette), advocate last Tuesday for expanding the Earned Release Program to non-violent inmates who did not have alcohol or drug issues. Rep. Hintz (D-Oshkosh) even pointed out the hypocrisy that Republicans were advocating for a law that they repealed six years earlier but was he cut off by Rep. Nygren who tried to make a distinction between “early” and “earned” release that does not exist.

The hypocrisy and lack of memory displayed by Republicans in the Joint Committee on Finance regarding criminal sentencing laws is not the issue. The issue is that Wisconsin prisons are at-capacity because of their sentencing laws. The removal of eligibility for non-violent offenders without drug or alcohol issues as well as other changes in their 2011 criminal justice bill has played a substantial role in Wisconsin’s large prison population.

The head of the Department of Corrections even stated that Wisconsin is running out of options to place inmates in Wisconsin and will soon possibly send inmates out of state to private prisons.

Are Republicans willing to send inmates out of state?
Are they willing to send inmates to private prisons?
Will Republicans enact laws that will lower the prison population?

We will find out soon as Republicans have until July to pass the new state budget that will have to include funding for Wisconsin’s projected prison population.