For months, Democrats running for governor have proposed sweeping changes to Wisconsin’s prison system, with some saying they want to slash the state’s prison population by half.
During a Monday morning press call, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel blasted the proposal, as outlined in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article, calling it irresponsible, misleading and a potential threat to public safety.
He said he was “stunned” by the proposal, which “would turn back into the community thousands of offenders, many of whom would be violent offenders.”
The state's total adult prison population as of July 6 was 23,661. Last year the state Legislature formed a task force exploring the idea of building an additional prison.
Throughout the campaign, the Democratic candidates for governor have called for major changes to the criminal justice system like legalizing marijuana and pardoning nonviolent marijuana offenders, addressing the racial disparities in the system, limiting revocations, which send individuals back to prison for violating a condition of parole or probation, and ditching truth-in-sentencing, a law spearheaded by Gov. Walker in the 1990s.
Of the Democratic candidates, political activist Mike McCabe and former state Rep. Kelda Roys have explicitly said they want to chop the prison population in half, with Roys stating that she’d like to accomplish this in four years. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout has said halving the population is an “absolutely doable statistic.”
Candidates either don’t understand what they’re saying, how the criminal justice system works, or they’re misrepresenting the issue to use it as a talking point, Schimel argued Monday.
Individuals only land in prison if they have “done so many crimes we don’t know what else to do with them” or they have done something so serious that they must be removed to keep society safe, he said.
“I can tell you after 29 years as a prosecutor that judges take sending someone to prison seriously,” Schimel said. “In Wisconsin, individuals are given opportunities time and time again to avoid ending up in the prison system.”
There are too many prisoners in Wisconsin, Schimel said, but the question is, which ones shouldn’t be there?
“I have a question for all these Democratic candidates: Which individuals are you talking about? Identify who you’re going to let out of prison,” Schimel said.
Reducing the prison population by half would necessarily mean releasing violent offenders, he said, as 67 percent of the prison population has been convicted of at least one violent offense, according to 2017 data.
He also took issue with candidates who hold up legalizing marijuana or pardoning nonviolent marijuana offenders as a way to fix the prison system. Former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn told the Journal-Sentinel that “drug-related offenses make up an enormous part of our prison population.”
The truth, Schimel said, is that only 11 percent of inmates are incarcerated with a drug-related crime as their most serious offense. The idea that “we’re filling up our prisons with people who have just possessed marijuana” is “absolutely false,” he said.
Schimel also cited separation of powers, saying the executive branch should not overstep into the judicial branch, except in a rare pardon or clemency by a governor.
Releasing criminals before the end of their sentence would undo “whatever degree of justice” victims received when the individual was originally sentenced, Schimel said. Instead, the focus should be on completing the rehabilitation process to address underlying problems so that prisoners don’t return to crime.
Asked if he was comfortable with the current prison population, Schimel said that the criminal justice system is “working hard” to address recidivism, pointing to his own work helping establish a drug treatment court in Waukesha and helping promote Treatment Alternatives and Diversion programs around the state, which he said help address the “underlying problems” of drug and alcohol abuse. He called this the “best thing we’re doing and can do right now to address the prison population.”
But if a new prison is needed, one should be built, he said, although he noted that it was a question for the DOC. Overcrowded prisons are unsafe for the correctional staff and inmates, and “reduce the likelihood that rehabilitative programs can be successful.”
Asked to comment on the possibility of private prisons, he again said the matter was a DOC decision, but said “there’s no reason why a privately operated prison couldn’t be a safe place to house and rehabilitate offenders.”
Schimel challenged reporters to ask his opponent in the race for Attorney General, Josh Kaul, for his views on the subject as “he wants to be the figurative head of the law enforcement team in Wisconsin.”
In a statement, Kaul called Schimel’s criticism “partisan attacks.”
"Brad Schimel mishandled our backlog of untested rape kits. Since he became AG, the opioid epidemic and our meth problem have gotten worse and delays in the testing of evidence at the state crime labs have increased. Schimel's partisan attacks don’t change the reality that he has allowed justice to be delayed and has failed to effectively fight crime."