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Prisons (copy) (copy)

Waupun Correctional Institution

When Tommy Thompson celebrated the publication of the fine memoir he has put together with Madison writer Doug Moe last week, the former governor was asked about his successes and about his mistakes. Thompson had plenty of good things to say about his tenure as Wisconsin longest-serving leader, but the Republican stalwart was also open about what he got wrong.

“What I regret now is that I built too many prisons in the state of Wisconsin,” said Thompson.

No, Thompson says, he has not gone soft. He has simply recognized the folly of the mass-incarceration mentality that prevailed in Wisconsin and a lot of other states in the 1990s. Democrats and Republicans erred on the side of more arrests, longer sentences, bigger prisons and exponentially greater spending on criminal justice strategies that were as brutish as they were shortsighted. Now, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives are recognizing the mistakes that were made.

Thompson is one of them and, as he often has over the years, he is thinking about how to get things right. He starts with a basic premise: “You’ve got to have some more compassion.” He says sentences are too long. He talks about closing at least one prison and turning it into a vocational school. He wants to ramp up programs to break the recidivism cycle by addressing drug and alcohol issues and providing job-training programs. When it comes to “prison reintegration” — helping men and women who have done their time get back home and back to work — Thompson says: “We could become a model for the country.”

That does not make Tommy Thompson a liberal. He’s still a conservative Republican. But he is a responsible Republican, who recognizes reality when it comes at him.

That distinguishes Thompson from Scott Walker, the current Republican governor who is mounting a desperate bid for another term. Things are not going well for Walker — a number of polls put state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers ahead of the incumbent. And the Cook Political Report, which just rated the race a “toss-up,” notes that strategists say “Walker’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination pushed him even further to the right and exposed some inherent weaknesses.” It also explains that Democrats “can tie (Walker) to President Trump, who is unpopular in the state, (which) is an added bonus.”

Walker, a career politician who has taken the low road in each of his gubernatorial bids, has veered into the gutter this year. He’s running ads that equate criminal justice reform with wanting to release "felons who’ve committed rape, assault, robbery and even kidnapping." It’s an attack on Evers for supporting efforts to reduce prison populations, and it deliberately neglects the fact that the Democrat has clearly stated: "We will not release violent criminals."

Walker is trying to save his political hide by deceiving the people of Wisconsin about a vital issue.

The governor is not just lying about Evers, however. Walker, in his desperation, is lying about everyone who wants to rethink failed policies — including a lot of responsible Republicans and compassionate conservatives.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times

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