Wisconsin Budget

Prison Admissions Rising in Rural Counties

Meanwhile, urban counties nationally and in southeast Wisconsin have decreased prison admission rates.

By , Wisconsin Budget Project - Sep 28th, 2016 12:28 pm
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Counties in rural northeast Wisconsin send as many people to prison for their size as the urban counties in southeast Wisconsin, according to newly-released figures on prison admissions. High prison admission rates from some rural Wisconsin counties are part of a national pattern in which people from small counties are as likely or more likely to go to prison than people from large counties.

Milwaukee County sends more people to prison for the size of its population than any other Wisconsin county, with 26.4 prison admissions in 2014 per 10,000 residents, according to an analysis in the New York Times. But some rural counties in northeast Wisconsin send almost as many people to prison for their size as Milwaukee County. The five counties with the next highest prison admission rates after Milwaukee County are:

  • Forest County, with 26.3 prison admissions per 10,000 residents;
  • Marinette County, 25.4 prison admissions per 10,000 residents;
  • Kenosha County, 25.2 prison admissions per 10,000 residents;
  • Racine County, 24.4 prison admissions per 10,000 residents; and
  • Langlade County, 22.2 prison admissions per 10,000 residents.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state in which rural areas are sending strikingly large numbers of people to prison. The New York Times describes how the geography of prison admissions has changed in recent years:

“A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America’s prison population for the first time since the 1970s…

But large parts of rural and suburban America — overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison — have gone the opposite direction. Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen.

Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties.”

Wisconsin counties follow the national trend to some extent: over the past decade, most (although not all) smaller counties in northeast Wisconsin have increased the number of people they send to prison. Counties in the rural northeast with increases in prison admission rates between 2006 and 2014 include:

  • Oconto County, +86%;
  • Vilas County, +83%;
  • Marinette County, +22%;
  • Forest County, +22%; and
  • Langlade County, +5%.

Meanwhile, the urban counties in southeast Wisconsin have decreased prison admission rates. (This pattern does not hold true for the ring of suburban counties around Milwaukee, which have seen increases in admissions.) Changes in prison admission rates in urban southeast Wisconsin counties between 2006 and 2014 include:

  • Milwaukee County, -37%; and
  • Kenosha County, -27%; and
  • Racine County, -26%.

The high prison admission rates in northeast Wisconsin come with a hefty price tag, measured in both the lost potential of Wisconsin residents and in dollars and cents. Wisconsin’s over-reliance on high-cost incarceration over less expensive alternatives has produced questionable results, requiring taxpayers and communities to pick up the bill for the state’s short-sighted priorities. For more about how Wisconsin can reduce the costs of incarceration, read Prison Price Tag: The High Cost of Wisconsin’s Incarceration Policies.

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