Wisconsin places more individuals released from prison under parole supervision and for longer periods of time than the national average, according to a new report from the Justice Lab at Columbia University.
They are sent back to prison at high rates for violating a term of their parole or probation rather than breaking a law.
Jerome Dillard, state director of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), isn’t shocked at these findings. He’s been incarcerated, he knows many Wisconsinites who have been incarcerated, and EXPO released a similar report in 2016.
But with Gov. Tony Evers' administration in place, he’s “very hopeful” reports like this can gain traction for change.
“At least they’re willing to listen,” Dillard said. “Republican and Democratic states all around us are showing that you can cut that budget and keep the community safe.”
The report, titled “The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story,” says that although community supervision was originally intended as an incarceration alternative, it is now driving mass incarceration Wisconsin and in the U.S., at great financial cost to the state.
“The criminal justice system itself is broken, but community corrections are the hope-killers,” Dillard said. “When (former prisoners) hit the barriers that are in front of them, it just chokes the hope out of them.”
STATE OF SUPERVISION
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections oversees community corrections, which refers to both parole and probation. Parole means supervision after release from prison, and probation refers to monitoring individuals instead of incarceration or after a short jail sentence, said Vincent Schiraldi, an author of the report.
In 2016, there were just under 65,000 Wisconsinites under probation or parole supervision. That’s 5,000 more people than Alaska, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming’s combined community corrections populations.
The system has disproportionate effects for black and Native American prisoners in Wisconsin, the report said. One in eight African-American men and one in 11 Native American men is under community supervision.
Probation supervision rates have declined slightly over 20 years in the state, but Wisconsin has the seventh highest parole supervision rate in the nation, the report says, at 453 out of 100,000 adults.
And in Wisconsin, individuals remain under supervision for longer periods of time. The national average parole in 2016 was 22 months, compared to Wisconsin’s 38 months. Alabama and Oklahoma are the only states with longer average stretches.
This isn’t the result of increased crime, the report says; Minnesota has similar crime rates but half Wisconsin’s incarceration rate.
Instead, the report points to Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing Law, passed in 1998, which got rid of time off for good behavior, severely limited early release, and specified that prisoners serve their full sentence “plus a period of extended supervision that must be at least 25% of the original prison sentence,” the report said.
Supervision is often expensive for the formerly incarcerated, the report says, with monthly supervision fees (between $240 and $720 in 2016 in Wisconsin), drug and alcohol tests and electronic monitoring.
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.”
The Colombia report found that 37 percent of Wisconsin prison admissions in 2017 were revocation-only admissions, which amounted to 3,442 people.
Revocation-only admissions can occur when individuals commit minor infractions like missing meetings with a parole officer, leaving their home county, breaking curfew, refusing to take prescribed medications or consuming alcohol, according to the 2016 WISDOM report.
Supervision rules can be arbitrarily enforced, the report said, like a Wisconsin rule that states “Avoid all conduct … which is not in the best interest of the public welfare or your rehabilitation.”
Dillard advocated for a man who was out of prison at 21 and garnered a great living-wage job before he was arrested for driving without a license. He was subsequently incarcerated for three weeks, losing his job.
“I begged them personally, I begged his agent, let him keep his job,” Dillard said. “That’s a horror story … but it’s happening often.”
THE SAME STORY
The issue of crimeless revocations has long been a huge area of concern for WISDOM, a collective religious social justice organization, and its offshoot EXPO.
The groups released a report in December 2016 arguing that thousands of people, many of them with mental illnesses, are sent to prison in Wisconsin for breaking conditions of their paroles, rather than engaging in new criminal activity.
“(Our report) was saying a lot of the same things” Dillard said. “The fact is that community corrections has been broken in Wisconsin for a very, very long time.”
At the time, Dane County officials said they didn’t believe revocations of parole were a problem in the county, and Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials said most revocations do involve criminal activity, even if there is no new conviction. DOC has not yet commented on the Colombia report.
Dillard said their report garnered public attention and generated buzz, but in conversations with former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, it was a “moot issue.” He’s hopeful that will change with Evers administration.
“There was no second chances with that administration … Parole was at a trinkle … Compassionate release didn't exist,” he said. “Community corrections is functioning the way they’ve been ordered to function.”
The report recommends closing Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF). Activists have also called for it’s closure, pointing to what they consider the inhumane conditions. The report points out that the jail is the “first facility in the nation … built solely for the purpose of incarcerating people who are on community supervision.”
The report found that 86 percent of people incarcerated for revocations at MSDF did not have a new conviction.
The state should generally shorten parole and probation to between one and three years and cut down on revocations without a new conviction, it said. Instead of directing funds and resources to frequent and long supervision, the state should reallocate funds to community supports, the report said.