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  • Writer's pictureChris Zachar

How Wisconsin's insane concept of supervision drives our insane belief in mass incarceration

And we'll send you to prison for 18 months if you miss a single meeting with your agent!

Last week the Columbia University Justice Lab released a report detailing many of Wisconsin’s most prominent failures in sentencing and community supervision. The findings weren’t too surprising to criminal defense attorneys, but some are truly shocking to say out loud.

That includes the number of people in Wisconsin on community supervision (probation, parole, or extended supervision). In our state alone, there were nearly 65,000 people on some form of supervision. That’s almost 15,000 more people than live in the City of La Crosse. In fact, the report noted that Wisconsin has 5,000 more people on community supervision than Alaska, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.

But that's not all. In Wisconsin, a person can be on concurrent supervision for several difference offenses. This means that you can be serving several terms of probation at once for different counts that you were originally charged with. So you can be revoked and sentenced to jail on one offense, but still remain on probation for others, effectively never breaking free of the cycle of supervision and revocation. Extended supervision is even worse. A person could complete four years of a five year sentence, get revoked for a year after visiting a bar, and has to start the remaining term of supervision over once he or she got out of prison.

This happens. Alot.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people on supervision, and the disproportionate length of time people are placed on supervision constitutes the largest source of inmates imprisoned in Wisconsin jails and prisons. Over seventy-five percent of probation/extended supervision offenders who are sentenced to prison, are sentenced without new criminal convictions. So-called “technical offenders” violate rules like using drugs, not reporting to a meeting or group, or living in an unapproved residence. They are empirically low-risk, yet the taxpayers spend nearly 150 million dollars each year just housing these offenders in the Wisconsin State Prison system. But that’s not the whole cost, because a vastly larger number of technical offenders are not imprisoned in the prison system, but in the network of county jails. The average cost to incarcerate a low risk inmate in a county jail is about eighty-nine dollars per day (La Crosse county calculated more than $100 daily). These inmates are sometimes incarcerated in jail for months at a time, for holds, revocation holds, short term jail sanctions, judicial reviews, and alternatives to revocation. Oftentimes, the violations that result in long-term jail confinement are as simple as smoking marijuana, consuming alcohol, failing to report a traffic stop, or not properly changing an address with the Department of Corrections.

This also happens. Alot.

The taxpayers get no benefit from this massive tax bill. Minnesota has approximately the same population, and an identical rate of criminal offenses. Yet Minnesota has less than half of our prison population, and spends a fraction of its tax dollars on warehousing offenders. Despite this massive policy distinction, the rates of crime remain identical. In short, mass incarceration is not making Wisconsin safer. It’s making Wisconsin poorer.

The report also clarified the broader economic implications of mass-incarceration. Low-risk, nonviolent, and status offenders not only lose their freedoms when sentenced to prison, but are also significantly impacted in their ability to reintegrate and contribute to the economy. Incarceration leads not only to immediate job loss, but also the loss of stable housing, the ability to pay rent, child support, or taxes, maintain professional certifications, and contribute to the economy. When these inmates are released they have no job, stable housing, and often lack aftercare. Not only are recently-incarcerated inmates unable to contribute to the economy, they are vastly more likely to require social safety net services like Badgercare, W-2 (‘welfare’), housing assistance, and food share. Many end up staying in homeless shelters or warming centers, and rely on food pantries and the Salvation Army just to eat. And to add insult to injury, Wisconsin recently made it legal for employers to refuse to hire or promote anyone convicted of a crime. A person can even be fired for the simplest of convictions totally unrelated to his or her work. We want offenders to reintegrate, pay taxes, and become part of the community, but Wisconsin’s policies are actively working against this goal and contributing to an economy that lags far behind our neighbor states.

Finally, the report reiterates Wisconsin’s most shameful statistic. We have the highest per capita rate of incarceration of African Americans in the nation. That’s right, Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of black people than Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and the rest of the deep south. Just seven percent of Wisconsin’s population is African American, yet African Americans constitute forty-one percent of the prison population. African Americans are stopped more than twice as often as Caucasians, cited by police seven times as often, and are more than four times likely to be arrested. In fact, in Wisconsin, an African American person is seven times more likely to incarcerated than a Caucasian person. This statistic is a disgrace. But it is not only driven by disproportionate enforcement and prosecution; the stratospherically high number of people on probation, and Wisconsin’s willingness to revoke that supervision for the simplest of violations, continues to contribute to this problem.

I have begun to share and argue the findings of this comprehensive study with circuit court judges, administrative law judges, and prosecutors in the hopes that the simple numbers will begin to drive a supervision policy that doesn’t devastate people, families, and the state tax coffers, but I suspect that change will continue to be slow.

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