Will Counties Handle State’s Prisoners?
State prisons are way over capacity; officials propose contracting with county jails.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a law increasing the severity of the offense of the fourth and subsequent instances of driving while intoxicated. The change means that more people will be sent to prison for repeat instances of drunk driving; the Department of Corrections estimates the new law will increase the number of inmates in the state prison system by 458 inmates at the end of 2017, and by 1,205 inmates at the end of 2018. The increase in the number of inmates is expected to continue to rise after the second year and then level off at some point.
Absorbing those additional inmates will be difficult because Wisconsin prisons are already significantly overcrowded. Wisconsin’s prison system was designed to house 17,148 inmates – but it held 22,234 inmates as of the end of 2014, more than 5,000 inmates over capacity. The state’s largest prison, the medium-security prison in Oshkosh, has an operating capacity of 1,494 but held 2,044 inmates. That’s 550 inmates over capacity, or 37% more residents than the facility is meant to hold. To fit more inmates into prisons than was originally intended, officials have put more inmates into cells than the cells were designed for, and used non-housing space for housing purposes.
By filling state prisons beyond capacity, state officials have managed to limit the financial cost of locking up the increasing number of people – although of course this approach also comes with a number of downsides, such as reducing the space available for programs or activities that can help inmates integrate back into their communities once they are released.
Now, however, prison officials have said that they cannot fit any more inmates into the state’s prison system, including the projected increase in inmates from the change in repeat drunk driving laws. As Department of Corrections officials noted in the department’s 2017-19 budget request: “Due to current prison populations, space does not exist in Department of Corrections institutions to house and provide programming for the additional projected population.”
The costs incurred by filling the state’s prison system beyond capacity should be an impetus to lawmakers to find alternatives that reduce the number of people locked up by the state. Wisconsin’s corrections costs are already out of line with those in other states. Prison Price Tag: The High Cost of Wisconsin’s Corrections Policies, a Wisconsin Budget Project report, explains how Wisconsin’s corrections costs line up:
Wisconsin state and local governments spent $1.5 billion on corrections in 2013. That’s over a tenth more — 12% — on corrections per state resident than the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2013, or $27 more per state resident. Nationally, only 11 states spend more on corrections per state resident than Wisconsin.
Some other states – such as New Jersey, California, and New York – have successfully reduced corrections costs by driving down prison populations while still keeping crime rates low. Wisconsin could follow in the footsteps of other states and reduce corrections populations and costs by:
- Expanding approaches that have proven track records for keeping people out of prison;
- Reducing the number of prison admissions that do not involve new convictions; and
- Reducing recidivism by removing barriers to getting a job.
We won’t be able to undo years of overuse of the state’s prison system overnight. But by the Department of Corrections’ budget request shows the importance of moving the emphasis from high-cost incarceration to less expensive alternatives.