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Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee

Tom and Jan Gilbert’s son was sent to prison for five years for being party to a crime. 

He was released 30 months ago, but for 17 of those months, he’s been incarcerated. He hasn’t committed any new crimes, the Gilberts said, but he has been in jail while the Department of Corrections has tried three times to send him back to prison for violating his supervision rules. He suffers from mental health issues and, in one case, the DOC attempted to revoke him after he called the police to report he was having violent thoughts.

On Wednesday afternoon, Democratic candidates for governor agreed that situations like this, which play out thousands of times in Wisconsin every year, need to stop. They called for sweeping criminal justice reform and an end to the process that sends former inmates back to prison even when they haven't broken the law. 

The forum was organized by WISDOM, a collective religious social justice organization, and its off-shoot Ex-Prisoners Organizing. Over 100 people crowded into a room at Grace Episcopal Church to hear the candidates — Matt Flynn, Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Kelda Roys, state Rep. Dana Wachs, Andy Gronik, Jeff Rumbaugh and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout — give brief statements on the issue.

Mandela Barnes, a candidate for lieutenant governor, also spoke. The candidates didn't debate each other, instead focusing their criticism on the state’s criminal justice system and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The forum built on discussion from a 2016 WISDOM-commissioned report that argued too many people are sent to prison in Wisconsin for breaking conditions of their parole.

Revocation refers to sending an individual back to prison for violating his post-imprisonment supervision arrangement, like parole, probation or extended supervision. When individuals are revoked for breaking these technical rules, but not breaking any law, this is known as “revocation without a new conviction” or a “revocation-only admission.”

This can happen when individuals commit minor infractions like missing meetings with a parole officer, leaving their home county, breaking curfew or consuming alcohol, according to the report.

At the forum, Pam Oliver, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said there’s little or no evidence that checking in with parole officers lowers the risk of a future criminal offense. She called supervision rules “almost impossible not to violate,” especially considering many ex-prisoners struggle with addiction, mental illness and poverty.

Candidates called for a more rehabilitative process instead of what they called an unhelpful “gotcha” system.

“When did we become so unforgiving?” Wachs asked. “We’re condemning them for their lives, nonsensically.”

Roys said she learned as a law student at UW-Madison that individuals should only be incarcerated as a just punishment for a crime or for public safety. Revocations without a new conviction accomplish neither, she said.

“They should be welcomed into society, they should be treated like human beings who made a mistake and paid their dues,” Roys said.

The candidates endorsed a bill introduced by state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, similar to bill passed by a Republican legislature and governor in Michigan last year. At the forum, Goyke outlined AB796, which would limit the  incarceration time to 30 days for former inmates who violate their supervision rules, except in certain circumstances like the allegations of a new criminal offense. Goyke said that if "Republicans in the state of Michigan can figure this out," Wisconsin Republicans could too. 

Candidates said revocations represented a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. In 2015, the state spent $147 million to incarcerate almost 3,000 people without a new conviction, according to the WISDOM report.

Barnes said money could be better spent on sending those individuals back to school, providing job training or even subsidizing a salary.

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Walker’s recent proposal to close Lincoln Hills juvenile prison, as well as his announcement this week that he wanted to speed up the process, was too little, too late, according to his Democratic challengers. Walker supported legislation that filled up prisons, they said, including his strong support of truth-in-sentencing laws.

“Twenty-five years ago, Scott Walker got elected to his first office, and the first priorities that he had were to start locking up as many people as possible,” Roys said. 

To correct what they saw as harmful policies, candidates advocated for a variety of criminal justice reforms.

Wachs was one of several candidates who advocated addressing underlying causes of crime, like substance abuse and mental illness.

Vinehout said the state needs to accept Medicaid dollars from the federal government (something Walker has refused to do) and spend the money addressing mental health and addiction treatment. When she visited Taycheedah Correctional Institution for women, she said, the institution held 200 inmates who had to complete court-ordered treatment for addiction and recovery, but capacity to treat only 35 inmates.

Candidates pointed to the racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system, and Mitchell reminded the crowd that Wisconsin has the nation’s highest incarceration rate for African-American men.

In Wisconsin, a second offense for possession of marijuana is a felony crime. Flynn, Rumbaugh and McCabe spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana, and Flynn and McCabe said they were willing to pardon those who were imprisoned unjustly for minor drug offenses.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials have said most revocations do involve new criminal activity, even if there is no new conviction, and 33.5 percent of original revocation-only admissions eventually receive new criminal sentences for the behavior that led to revocation.