The Contrarian

The Siren Song of Criminal Justice Reform

The increase in incarceration since early 1990s actually led to less crime.

By - Jul 9th, 2018 02:50 pm
Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

Keep two things in mind in assessing the consensus among Democratic gubernatorial candidates — and, apparently, Tommy Thompson — that Wisconsin incarcerates too many criminals.

  1. In 1990, there were 215,000 crimes reported in Wisconsin. Last year the total was 123,388.
  2. In 1990 Wisconsin prisons housed 7,332 inmates. At the start of this year the number was 23,200.

In other words, the expansion of Wisconsin’s inmate population coincides with a 43% reduction in crimes reported by the FBI. Research documents a causal link between reduced crime rates and the incarceration of serious, repeat offenders. There is a corresponding reduction in the staggering cost of crime to victims, a factor almost never mentioned when discussing the higher costs of incarceration.

Contrary to the “criminal justice reform” narrative about “mass incarceration,” it’s actually hard to get a stiff prison sentence. In Milwaukee County, and other jurisdictions throughout the state, prosecutors and judges aggressively explore and experiment with “diversion programs” and “alternatives to incarceration.”

The Wisconsin prison population constitutes about 25% of offenders under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. That’s right: three of four criminals are serving their sentence under what is euphemistically called “community supervision.” As any police chief can tell you, it’s those offenders who commit a disproportionate number of crimes.

And then there’s the bogus notion that prisons are crowded with “non-violent offenders.” Consider this from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau:

The predominant offenses by [male inmates] are sexual offenses, murder/ homicide, robbery, assaults, and burglary. The most common by women are murder/homicide, theft, assault, operating while intoxicated, and robbery.

Further contradicting the notion that prisons house a significant number of “low-risk” criminals, the Fiscal Bureau reports that “average total sentence, including prison and community supervision, for inmates in adult institutions on July 1, 2016 was 21.3 years for males and 12.0 years for females.”

The Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley last week summarized positions advanced by Democrats who think letting thousands of inmates out early is either good policy or good politics. In an article headlined “Democrats running for governor call for slashing prison population,” Marley wrote:

Democrats running for governor are campaigning on prison reform, with many calling for cutting the inmate population in half…The eight Democrats…say they want to lower [prison] costs by scaling back the number of inmates. Many are calling for legalizing marijuana, releasing some inmates early, closing one or more prisons and ending parole and probation revocations for violating supervision rules.

To call this unforced error a gift to Scott Walker and GOP legislative candidates is an understatement. It only could have come from a party with national figures who embrace such memes as “Abolish ICE”.

In fairness to the Democratic slate, they might claim an ally of sorts in former Governor Tommy Thompson. In a recent 1,000+-word essay in the Journal Sentinel, he observed:

I presided over the largest expansion of our state’s prison system, believing our families are safer as a result. But I’ve also come to believe that our corrections system and incarceration practices are both financially unsustainable and provide questionable outcomes worthy of strenuous review.

Thompson (and his contributing co-author Steve Hurley) are correct in one important respect. Namely, most inmates will be released. For a range of obvious reasons, they will have a very difficult time working their way back into society. They often lack a high school diploma. Many grew up in an environment of social dysfunction. A history of substance abuse is common.

No one with a bit of common sense can oppose Thompson’s goal of helping released offenders avoid the revolving door of recidivism which victimizes more innocent people and earns the offender a trip back to prison. But that worthwhile goal too often verges into the realm of magical thinking when paired with the rhetoric of “mass incarceration” or, in Thompson’s case, “financially unsustainable” incarceration practices.

It is a serious mistake to advance the legitimate challenge of offender re-integration with a broad-brush indictment of the overall correctional system.

Doing so — under the bromide of “criminal justice reform” — discounts the undeniable reality of (1) who goes to prison and (2) the likely impact of incarceration on crime.

The hard and regrettable fact is that a small segment of the state’s population is incorrigible. The life history of many inmates is a tragic chronicle of dysfunctional “homes” and neighborhoods that are marked by all the predictors of crime. Most talk about “root causes” of crime skates past these hard realities.

In the end, “criminal justice reform” too often amounts to giving up. The real challenge — the tough challenge ignored by many elected officials in both parties — involves addressing the culture of dysfunction and decay that is the breeding ground for future criminals.

37 thoughts on “The Contrarian: The Siren Song of Criminal Justice Reform”

  1. Big Al says:

    If I look up the violent crime rate of MN and WI, WI has a higher rate (290 vs. 229 per 100k people) for 2014, the last year published above. However, if I look up the incarcerated populations for both states for 2016, WI also has the higher rate (790 vs. 380 per 100k people) for 2016. Assuming not much changed from 2014 to 2016 that would dictate a different result, please explain why MN has a lower crime rate with a lower incarceration rate, since you assert that higher incarceration leads to lower crime rates.

  2. fightingbobfan says:

    Hey Bargain Basement Bill Buckley — we are paying $400 million more than Minnesota for incarcerations.

    That’s a great use of our money.

    Thanks to the wild fear of crime and people of color in the WOW counties, we have these insane policies. Rural Wisconsin plays along, to their detriment.

    You can look up any number of studies that showed this drop in crime was a national phenomenon.

  3. Barbara says:

    Correlation doesn’t prove causation. I don’t see causation supported here except in one statement referring to unnamed “research.”



    I doubt you are suggesting that Wisconsin could lower its violent crime rate by cutting its incarceration rate in half.

    There are many reasons that different jurisdictions might have different violent crime rates.
    An assessment of why the MN and WI rates differ would incorporate a collection and analysis of data that covers a longer period of time and includes many factors other than incarceration rates.

    Violent crimes constitute only about 15% of FBI-reported index crimes. The reduction in Wisconsin crime rates largely has been in burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson. All things being equal, those are crimes most associated with recidivism.

    A key is as follows: “Compared to what?” For example, if there are X crimes in year one and 120% of X in year 10 one must ask what the number would have been in year 10 if the number of inmates in year one had not increased. The answer to that and many other questions would need to be examined to evaluate the impact of incarceration.



    I wrote a lengthy study in the 1990s that cites peer-reviewed research on causation.

    Google will lead you to many recent reports that draw different conclusions. They are mostly driven by “researchers” with an agenda. The same of course could be said about me; that’s why I cite studies by scholars that actually were published in peer-reviewed journals.

    Those who think incarceration does not reduce crime are free to advocate a reduction in prison populations. This would include Democratic candidates for governor.

  6. Three phases come to mind after reading George Mitchell’s homage to incarceration. The first is “spurious correlation.” Lock up more people crime rates come down. Crime is many things, but lets look at violent crime, particularly homicide. While homicide rates have dropped to record lows in most cities, they have not in Milwaukee, Chicago, and few other older, mainly rustbelt cities despite high levels of incarceration. Milwaukee’s homicide rate has even exceeded Chicago’s in some recent years. If most people in prison are violent offenders, why haven’t policies of mass incarceration worked in our state? Maybe prison isn’t the one size fits all answer for crime.

    But that leads to the second term: “full disclosure.” George Mitchell has been a prominent advocate for prison construction and particularly for privatized prisons. Will his consulting work benefit from his hoped for “prison boom?” Mitchell’s ideology I’m sure trumps his self interest, but he might let his readers know his potential financial gain from new prisons.

    The third phrase is “dog whistle.” Mitchell thinks prison is the answer for the “incorrigible” portion of Wisconsin’ population. Who are those incorrigibles? Mitchell doesn’t say but there is ample research that does. Wisconsin disproportionately incarcerates more African Americans than any other state. A UWM study pointed out between 1990 to 2012, 26,222 black men from Milwaukee County alone had been incarcerated—which means that more than half of all African-American men in their thirties and early forties in Milwaukee County have at some point been incarcerated. Let that sink in — most of MIlwaukee’s black men in their 30s and 40s have spent time in state prisons! There is something very wrong here.

    In the battle for scarce resources, I’m for investing in jobs for poor African American neighborhoods not building new prisons. Mitchell sees only advantages in locking up black people, but mass incarceration has had indisputable crippling effects on African American families. It also enhances a racialised “them and us” culture that believes incarcerating, deporting, or annihilating “the other” will answer our problems. Mitchell’s article adds to the unhealthy polarization of our society.


    Hi John. Long time.

    I’ll let my studies stand for themselves. They all are on the public record.

    Thanks for weighing in.


    Here’s on of several. I’d be glad to address factual errors.

  9. PMD says:

    Great post and points John. You hit the nail on the head.

  10. fightingbobfan says:

    What does confirm is the naked play by Walker and the GOP to their base at the expense of this state.

    If the Democrats had a chance to save money on one of their pet policies and didn’t, the right wing would be howling like banshees.

    We are talking about serious money and the damaging effects on the African-American community.

  11. Barbara says:

    I’m with John Hagedorn.

  12. Jamaal Smith says:

    John comes through in the clutch again!!

  13. PMD says:

    Do a Google search and you find countless studies and reports that conclude mass incarceration does not result in less crime. Brennan Center for Justice study in 2015. Vera Institute of Justice study in 2017. A 2017 study by an economist working for the Open Philanthropy Project who carried out an exhaustive review, replication and analysis of papers and articles on the impact of locking people up in America. A 2012 study by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A report by the Sentencing Project. And so on. I could go on forever. All were written by people far more qualified than George Mitchell.

  14. Big Al says:

    Hi George – I am not stating we can lower the violent crime rate by cutting the incarceration rate. What I am pointing out is that 2 neighboring states with arguably similar histories, populations, etc. have significantly different violent crime rates, but the state with the lower rate incarcerates far fewer people. This contradicts your assertion that locking up more people brings down the rate.

    Seems to me that we’re throwing millions of dollars at the corrections system that we could use for other things and get a similar or better result. Reminds me of those who keep telling us we can’t keep throwing money at the public school system…

  15. PMD says:

    Shouldn’t there be a disclaimer here that Mitchell is someone who advocates for building more prisons? That is a conflict of interest.


    PMD….Below is a descriptor used at another website where my commentary was posted.

    “George Mitchell managed the team that planned and built the Milwaukee County Criminal Justice Center. He also also managed the team of specialists who prepared the state’s 1990 correctional system master plan. He has written several studies of the state’s criminal justice system.”

    You are correct that a person’s public views on an issue should be factored into the dialogue. It’s long been clear where I stand. Of course that same reasoning applies to groups and individuals that you cite. They, too, have explicit agendas. What matter is the quality of research on which individuals rely to draw conclusions.

    My writing on this topic occurred >20 years ago. Fortunately, there’s been enough time to assess the validity of what I suggested might occur. And, as it happens, my prognostications were largely on target. So, as I said, I’ll stand on my writing.

    Thanks for your perspective.

  17. Terry says:

    Wisconsin is a racist, xenophobic far right wing backwater. Minnnesota has created a far more egalitarian, ethical society, great healthcare for all, great schools, the state decriminalized marijuana in the 1970’s, they even have paved roads and rural high speed internet, Wisconsin just builds more prisons to lock up poor people for weed and other nonsense, throwing away billions for nothing as the violent crime is still way higher than Minnesota, (more prisons don’t mean lower “crime” just bigger Big Government, more taxes, more policing for profit and forprofit prisons) and the state is still mired in alcoholism, poverty rates are at 30 year highs in Walker’s Wisconsin, roads are shit, poverty and hopelessness abound and the state. Follow the money sheeple, it all leads back to greasy Scott Walker and republican mega-rich donors.

    Dump Walker 2018

    Fire Walker

  18. LenaTaylorNeedsToResign says:

    Democrats lie about the prison population to dupe their easily-led followers and to garner more votes from the pro-criminal element.

    I’ve always been in favor of releasing existing prison population AS LONG AS it’s guaranteed those wonderful ‘nonviolent’ folks take up residence immediately next to Democrats.

    Build more prisons if we have to. Keep criminals away from decent, law-abiding society so those contributing members and their families can thrive.

  19. PMD says:

    Easily-led followers. That’s rich considering the falsities that Republicans and Trump lovers believe. Pizzagate! Birthers! Too many others to count! Good laugh on a Tuesday afternoon.

    Pro-criminal. Some of the absolute dumbest and most vile rhetoric to come from right-wingers. You’ve lost the argument when you spew nonsense like that. You’re below the gutter.

  20. fightingbobfan says:

    Pro-criminal? You mean like Trump, who is a criminal?

    LTNTR is a good example of the fearful people on the right who waste our money.

    Again, Minnesota.

    I’ll have what they’re having.

  21. fightingbobfan says:

    What Terry said.

    The rate of African-American incarceration in Wisconsin is shameful and anyone who thinks this is a great idea is shameful.

    We can be better than this.


    The rate of African American incarceration results primarily from actions by a Democratic prosecutors and judges who generally identify as progressives.

  23. fightingbobfan says:

    Which is it George? Some times you people accuse the DAs and judges of flooding the street with criminals, and now you accuse him of sending African-Americans up the river.

    Can you make up your mind?

  24. GaReform says:

    Incarceration should be used for the ones most dangerous to society & those with proven records of being unable to rehabilitate. Instead of spending massive amounts of money to lock people up, we need to spend equally on reentry.
    There are over 65 million people in the US with some type of conviction in their background. It is almost impossible for someone with a conviction to find safe housing or employment. Try reading job ads & see how many state No Felonies or emphasize they do background checks. Housing ads are the same. They want excellent credit scores & perfectly clean backgrounds. If someone returning from incarceration can’t find a job or a place to live, how are they supposed to be successful?
    We need to get communities involved in making sure that anyone who wants to change their lives can do so.
    I see comments here that say “let them live next to Democrats”.Wake up!! This is not a Republican or Democrat problem. It’s our problem! And if you think that the criminal justice system will never be your problem, so did I.
    Our family is educated, white, and upper middle class. We have learned the terrible heartbreak that comes with having a loved one go through the system. Until you watch someone who was successful in business & personal life lose their friends, home & job, you can’t imagine the struggle to keep going.
    The National Incarceration Association ( has statistics that will show how large the problem is. Building more prisons won’t solve the problem. Eventually we will have more people incarcerated than out. There needs to be a better plan that balances public safety with the need for reentry planning.

  25. George Mitchell says:

    GaReform highlights what is by far the biggest challenge.

    Prison has 3 purposes: 1. Deterrence. 2. Incapacitation. 3. Rehabilitation. The second of those 3 is the one that is demonstrably achieved.

    FightingBob: I stated a fact. I neither accused nor defended DAs and judges.

  26. fightingbobfan says:

    Our idiotic policy of locking up one in three black people is stupid and mean spirited, especially when you compare us to Minnesota.

    Consequently, that state has more money for filling pot holes, improving education and investing in the state.

    We have tens of thousands of people who will not be tax payers.

    The system is a waste of our money.

    And why are we doing it. Because it makes a career to certain people. It appeals to the fears of way too many.

    No wonder Minnesota is kicking our behind in economics.

  27. TransitRider says:

    In post # 22, George Mitchell writes, “The rate of African American incarceration results primarily from actions by … judges who generally identify as progressives.”

    Really? Courts in WOW counties are stacked with liberal judges? Even in Milwaukee County, two of the three top judges (White and Donald) were GOP appointees.

    Milwaukee County has another 14 judges in its Felony Division, but the politics of most are obscured by Wisconsin’s non-partisan elections (and because so many judicial elections are uncontested), but of the 6 Felony Division judges who initially reached the bench via appointment, three (Dee, Havas, & Wall) are Walker appointees.

    So 67% of Milwaukee’s top judges were GOP appointees and, of those felony trial judges with discernible politics (thru gubernatorial appointments) half are GOP.

  28. George Mitchell says:

    Transit Rider: Good points, though I don’t know what a “top judge” is.

    Further, the African American incarceration rate has been high for decades….long before Walker was governor. During that period Milw County always has had a Dem prosecutor and a police chief picked by a Dem mayor. Every African American convicted in the county was charged by a Dem. Most of those offenders were arrested by the MPD. Finally, the long-term makeup of the Milwaukee County cannot be defined as conservative or right wing.

  29. TransitRider says:

    George Mitchell, the “top judges” are the person identified as “Chief Judge” and the two people shown as “Deputy Chief Judge” on the County’s web site.


    TransitRider: thanks

  31. fightingbobfan says:

    The right wing might not be totally the problem, but in no way are they solution, because they have been riding the lock up black people horse ever since the Reagan election.

    All we are demanding is that it is obvious that other states have been able to shrink their prison population to the benefit of the state’s budget and the lives of those who might have been incarcerated, we should be smart like them and do the same.

    But as long as the GOP thinks that this is a successful strategy for them, in no way can we expect anything positive out of them, especially since it feeds the racist strain that runs through a good part of this party.

  32. Crazy Chester says:

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

  33. Barbara says:

    Looks like this conversation has come full circle.

  34. Barbara says:

    I was once a policy analyst in Madison for Gov. Thompson. Our office had a brainstorming session for solutions to the prison overcrowding problem and projections that it was only going to get worse. At that time, California was having good success with releasing nonviolent drug offenders on parole with frequent required drug tests. I made this suggestion. The horrified response was, “Are you suggesting the governor change his policy???” Well no, not exactly — I was suggesting he be informed of the alternatives. But that was the attitude then. It does look like Wisconsin is using this practice to some extent now, finally.

  35. fightingbobfan says:

    Don’t look to the GOP to fix this. Their base gets off on not spending money that could go to Scotholes and education, and dumping it instead for dumping it in prisons to teach black people a lesson.

  36. George Mitchell says:

    Barbara: See the study at #8 for data on who’s in prison.

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