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Prisons

The state Parole Commission would be eliminated under Gov. Scott Walker's budget, but a prison reform advocate opposes the move.

The state Parole Commission, which for decades has decided when inmates can be released from prison, would be eliminated in 2018 under a proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

The decisions now made by the commission, which have been dwindling in number since the state implemented the “Truth in Sentencing” law in 2000, would be turned over to a single decision-maker within the state Department of Corrections, according to the budget proposal. The move would save nearly $1.8 million over the two-year biennium, Walker’s budget states.

But an advocate for prison reform said the move is nothing more than a way to keep some inmates, who committed crimes before 2000, locked up, even though many have been moved into minimum-security prisons, a final step before release.

“The proposal will maintain the integrity of the parole function while saving taxpayer dollars and accounting for workload changes,” DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said. “DOC anticipates that the proposal will continue to prompt reviews of parole-eligible inmates.”

The current Parole Commission chairman, appointed by Walker, is Douglas Drankiewicz. Its two commissioners, Steven Landreman and Danielle LaCost, along with the commission’s support staff, are civil service employees. They will be given the chance to apply for other jobs within state government, Cook said.

“DOC is committed to working closely with the Parole Commission to ensure a seamless transition,” he said.

Under the budget proposal, parole decisions would be turned over to a new job, the director of parole, which would be within DOC’s Bureau of Classification and Movement.

Prior to 2000, criminal defendants who received prison sentences were given a number of years representing their sentence. They were deemed eligible for parole after serving one-third of that time, and had to be released on parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence. The Parole Commission decided when they were ready to be released and still performs that function for prisoners sentenced prior to 2000.

In 2000, the state enacted Truth in Sentencing, in which judges tell criminal defendants up front how much time they will spend in prison and how much time they will be on extended supervision after prison.

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Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project at First Congregational Church in Madison, said there are about 3,000 inmates still serving pre-Truth in Sentencing prison sentences who are eligible for parole but remain behind bars. Of them, about 400 are serving time in DOC’s least-restrictive institutions, such as Oakhill in Fitchburg or the Thompson Correctional Center near Deerfield, generally the last stops before release.

Many are involved in work details that take them outside those institutions, such as digging up tulip bulbs at the state Capitol grounds each year.

“If these people are safe enough to do landscaping at the Capitol, why can’t they come home?” Hancock said.

By moving parole decision-making deeper inside DOC, instead of with a nominally independent Parole Commission, Hancock said, DOC is just making it harder for parole-eligible inmates to earn release and costing taxpayers millions more.

By releasing the 400, Hancock said, the state could save $12 million, versus the lesser amount saved by eliminating the Parole Commission.

“To cast this as a cost-savings measure is nonsense,” Hancock said. “It is simply alternative facts.”

Hancock said he sees the move as part of what he said is Walker’s wish to abolish parole, similar to Walker’s refusal to grant pardons.

“For the last six years under Gov. Walker’s administration and the Parole Commission, the number of parolees has dropped to less than 5 percent of eligible inmates,” Hancock said. “We’ve seen diminishing availability of parole for people who are legally eligible.”

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