Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee

Like many Democratic lawmakers, state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, thinks Wisconsin has too many people in prison. Last year, several Democratic candidates for governor said they wanted to chop the state's 23,000 plus population in half

Goyke is suggesting more gradual measures: save money by putting new corrections policies in place, then invest that money in initiatives to reduce crime, like providing treatment alternatives and housing. That, he argued Thursday, will save even more money in corrections, courts and law enforcement. 

“These are connected. We can reduce incarceration and reduce crime,” Goyke said at the Capitol Thursday. “We’ve got the money. We’re spending it. We’re just not spending it the most effective way. We can reform our criminal justice system and reinvest on the front end.”

He laid out his plan in a report titled “No Vacancy,” a reference to Wisconsin’s crowded prisons. Goyke was joined by representatives from ACLU Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, who also detailed their suggested strategies and proven practices for preventing and reducing crime, violence and incarceration rates.

Overcrowded prisons run up a big bill for the state, Goyke said. One example: the state spent about $9 million in 2018 renting county jail beds for prisoners who didn’t fit in the state’s prisons.

Goyke outlined several ways to save money in plain terms: don’t send people back to prison unless they’ve committed a crime, increase prison releases, and reduce the number of people on supervision.

Vocational and education programs should count toward early release like participating in drug and alcohol addiction programs currently does, Goyke said. That could add up to “major savings;” letting inmates out of prison just six months earlier for completing such a program could save DOC $13 million, he said.

Goyke proposed turning two prisons — Lincoln Hills and Prairie du Chien — into education and treatment facilities to expand the DOC’s capacity to “skill them up as fast as we can,” and put inmates back out in the community to get a job.

“This will take a front-end investment, this isn’t free. But the savings on the back end are massive,” Goyke said.

Goyke said it makes sense to concentrate resources and supervision right after an inmate exits prison, when they are at the highest risk of reoffending and have the highest needs. But supervision should decrease after that, he said.

And like many advocates for prisoners in the state, Goyke said crimeless revocations are a problem. Revocation refers to sending an individual back to prison for violating the terms of parole or probation. When individuals are revoked for breaking these technical rules, but not breaking any law, this is known as “revocation without a new conviction” or “revocation-only admissions.”

In 2017, an estimated over 1,000 people were returned to prison for only a revocation, without committing a new crime, Goyke said, but rather for breaking a rule of supervision like drinking alcohol. Reducing that number by just 25 percent could save the state over $5 million on incarceration costs, Goyke said.

Collective savings should be invested in neighborhood grant programs, treatment alternatives and diversion programs (TAD) and homeless prevention, Goyke said.

Giving neighborhoods funds to identify their needs and address crime prevention at a local level has proven to be effective in a couple of Milwaukee neighborhoods, Goyke said. The Amani neighborhood on Milwaukee's north side saw a 26% decrease in crime from 2012 to 2016, he said.

TADs target the root causes of crime by addressing alcohol and other addictions, Goyke said, but should be expanded to restorative justice programs and to serve those with mental health issues and trauma histories.

Finally, the state should invest in more "housing first" programs, Goyke said. Housing first is a practice that attempts to provide stable housing first and then deliver other services like mental health, addiction counseling and job placement. After such an initiative was implemented in Milwaukee, 98% of the residents had a municipal citation in the year before they were housed, but only 9 percent had a municipal citation in the year after enrolling in housing first, he said.

Goyke called the reform a financial and — citing the state’s disproportionate incarceration of African-American men — moral imperative. He said conservative and liberal states alike have implemented similar strategies, but none of them did this “on a one-party basis.”

“We will not succeed in long-term, sustained criminal justice reform and reduction of our prison population, if it’s only a Democratic governor’s idea or if it’s only a Republican legislative idea. Everybody has to be at the table and has to have input on what the reforms look like,” Goyke said.

Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said his office has promoted bipartisanship via several task forces and bills.

"Last session, he brought legislators together to bring forward a bipartisan solution on juvenile justice reform that passed unanimously in the Legislature," Beyer said in an email Friday. "Assembly Republicans recently put forward a criminal justice budget proposals that should garner bipartisan support."

At the end of his briefing, Goyke summarized his viewpoint: “Fewer people in prison, save a bunch of money, spend it smartly, crime goes down.”

“The greatest criminal justice reform is that there’s just less crime,” he said. “I don’t want to reform the revocations system or close (Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility) just to do it, I want to do it to reinvest in my neighborhood and reduce crime. Put people on a healthier, more productive path from the beginning rather than just continuing to respond to something negative once it happens.”

Goyke encouraged interested parties to collaborate with him on legislative solutions.

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