In the late 1990s the Wisconsin Legislature enacted Truth in Sentencing and parole expansion laws that lengthened incarceration sentences and mandated unnecessarily lengthy terms of post-prison supervision, causing the state’s incarcerated and supervised population to skyrocket. The laws were part of the “tough on crime” wave that was sweeping the country, presented by policymakers and defended by media as a way to curb crime. The policies sent so many people to prison and supervision that Wisconsin’s prison system is now 140 percent over capacity and has cost taxpayers $1.8 billion — more than is spent on the state university system — and, as of 2016, the state had nearly 65,000 people — about the population of Oshkosh — on probation or parole supervision. Now the problem is growing worse.
A newly released paper from the Columbia Justice Lab, commissioned by JustLeadershipUSA, offers a fresh look at Wisconsin’s self-inflicted parole and probation crisis. The number of people here under parole exceeds the national average, and the racial disparities are egregious. Wisconsin’s parole sentences are nearly twice as long as the national average. When compared to neighboring states, Wisconsin ranks the highest with respect to the amount of time people spend on parole. In many cases, it’s well over a decade. Wisconsin is emblematic of a national overreliance on community corrections, and carries lessons that would be well learned across the nation.
Across Wisconsin, black people and Native Americans are significantly disproportionately impacted by supervision revocations, and the impact on black communities — both from these policies and from the culture of incarceration that they help promulgate — is appalling. One in-eight black men and one in 11 Native American men in Wisconsin is under parole or probation supervision, and black women are over three times more likely, and Native American women over six times more likely, to be on community supervision than white women. The 53206 zip code in Milwaukee has the highest concentration of black people and is the most incarcerated zip code in the state. And a recent report discovered that half of Wisconsin communities that qualify as “black neighborhoods” — defined as any area densely populated by black people — are actually jails.
This is a problem for several reasons. Any positive impact supervision might have wanes after one or two years, which means each additional year stretches out limited parole resources, serves as an unnecessary deprivation of liberty, and significantly lowers the threshold for imprisoning people for minor infractions. That’s why directly impacted advocates, researchers and even probation and parole administrators and prosecutors from around the country now recognize that mass supervision drives incarceration and undermines public safety.
The Justice Lab report shows that an alarming number of people freed from Wisconsin prisons are returning not because they committed new crimes, but because they violated a condition of their parole or probation, like missing appointments or curfew. As recently as 2017, people who were under supervision made up over half of the total adult incarcerated population in the state. One-fifth of all people incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons hadn’t even been convicted of a new crime, but were alleged to have some form of noncompliance with conditions of their supervision.
Supervision and revocations are so out of control in Wisconsin that the state built a facility solely to cage people under supervision. Opened in 2001, the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) is unique in its purpose and harm. The 1,040-person capacity structure was the first in the nation built just to detain people who are on probation or parole. Since its opening, at least 17 people in the facility have died, and thousands of others have been subject to the facility’s brutal and inhumane conditions. Over half the people at MSDF are there because of a revocation. Within that group, 86 percent are caged without having been convicted of a new crime. Within that group of people, 77 percent are black.
Much of this has been known and experienced by the people at the forefront of the movement to overhaul this system and shut down MSDF. Founded and led by people who have been directly impacted by the criminal legal system, the #CLOSEmsdf campaign is advancing several key demands, almost all of which are mirrored in recommendations put forward by the Justice Lab based on its own in-depth analysis. These include capping probation and parole terms to between one and three years and eliminating incarceration as a response to technical violations. This has been done in other states, resulting in reduced revocations, lower numbers of people under supervision, and increased public safety. This report makes it unflinchingly clear that Gov. Tony Evers and his administration must not only close MSDF but also repeal Truth in Sentencing and supervision-extending laws, and replace them with legislation that significantly overhauls Wisconsin’s supervisory system.
MSDF is the epitome of what’s wrong with Wisconsin’s criminal legal system, particularly its supervision regime and its corrections culture. Directly impacted advocates and communities are ready to work with the governor and the Legislature to close MSDF and dismantle the overly punitive supervision practices plaguing Wisconsin, and then take the cost savings and reinvest them back into those communities most impacted by the harm. Only then can we reimagine justice and eradicate the very real, racialized harms that the criminal legal system has caused for decades — finally bringing an end this stain on Wisconsin’s reputation.
DeAnna Hoskins is president of JustLeadershipUSA and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice. Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation.
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