Conservative standard bearer Grover Norquist got teary-eyed Tuesday as he urged a bipartisan gathering of state lawmakers to reconsider costly, tough-on-crime laws from the 1990s.
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform — and promoter of a “no new taxes” pledge signed by Gov. Scott Walker, the entire state GOP congressional delegation and several GOP state lawmakers — spoke at the state Capitol of ways to reduce the costs of the prison system, both to taxpayers and society.
Norquist, representing a growing national movement called Right on Crime, said reforms implemented in Texas have resulted in lower incarceration rates and that politicians who supported them weren’t penalized on election day — making the reforms an easier sell to conservatives than if they had originated in more liberal Vermont.
“The sense that this is some kind of weakening or becoming soft or becoming liberal,” Norquist said. “That’s not what it is.”
At the end of his presentation Norquist got choked up as he talked about the toll the prison system has taken on “families, lives and neighborhoods.”
Talking to reporters afterward, Norquist, who as a child read about becoming a prosecutor and judge and in college visited inmates sentenced to life in prison, explained that the issue was an emotional one for him because “the costs are not just in dollars; they’re lives.”
Norquist spoke bluntly about how get-tough policies like truth-in-sentencing and minimum mandatory sentences have caused the prison population and costs to balloon. He blamed lawmakers for passing such laws to get positive publicity, as well as public safety officials and organizations that advocate for more resources, rather than better management with existing resources.
Walker, who was the lead sponsor of Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing law when he served as a state representative in the late 1990s, did not respond to a request for comment on Norquist’s presentation. His most recent state budget proposal calls for eliminating third-shift guard tower duties at state prisons to reduce costs.
Truth-in-sentencing was promoted as a way to protect crime victims from seeing a perpetrator who was sentenced to prison for a certain length of time back on the streets on parole before the prison sentence was completed. Critics said at the time it would cause prison costs to skyrocket.
Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, also speaking at the policy briefing with Norquist, highlighted how the state prison population has increased 9 percent since 2000. He said it costs the state about $32,000 a year to incarcerate each of the state’s nearly 22,000 prison inmates, while those being monitored on parole cost $2,800 per year.
According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the inflation-adjusted taxpayer cost of the Corrections budget has increased 20 percent since 2000 to $1.17 billion in 2014.
Norquist laid out several solutions for reducing costs without compromising public safety, including replacing parole revocation for certain rules violations with a graduated system of penalties; eliminating redundant criminal laws at the local, state and federal level; basing parole on things like earning a high school equivalency degree or learning to read rather than good behavior; and ensuring those with felony records aren’t barred from obtaining certain professional licenses.
Wisconsin already does some of those things. For example, the state denies professional licenses to felons only when the crime is substantially related to the work, and it does so on a case-by-case basis reviewed by a lawyer in the Department of Safety and Professional Services, spokeswoman Hannah Zillmer said. She said the department does not keep statistics on license denials.
One idea that is already gaining traction is returning first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old offenders from adult corrections to the juvenile justice system, which would reverse a state law adopted 20 years ago.
A bipartisan proposal introduced last session didn’t pass because concerns about added cost to counties, but Assembly Corrections Committee chairman Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, who hosted Tuesday’s event, said lawmakers are considering adding it to the 2015-17 state budget.
Tuesday’s policy briefing was sponsored by the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, and also featured remarks from Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers attended.
Norquist said the appeal of the Right on Crime solutions is that they don’t require liberals or conservatives to compromise their core beliefs, while allowing them to counter a perception of being too partisan.