Evers Too Slow on Prison Reform?
His budget expands prisons, doesn’t offer much reform, critics charge.
State government’s priorities are wrong, candidate Evers said.
That was then.
But, on Feb. 28, Gov. Evers gave the Legislature a proposed 2019-21 budget that repeats that spending disparity.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s (LFB) summary of the governor’s budget:
*In the fiscal year ending on June 30, state tax dollars for the Department of Corrections (D0C) will total $1.16 billion; for the UW System, $1.11 billion.
*Evers’s budget for the year that begins July 1 calls for DOC to get $1.223 billion; the UW System, $1.172 billion.
*Evers’s budget for the year starting July 1, 2020, would give DOC $1.248 billion; the UW System, $1.184 billion.
Leaders of groups like WISDOM, for example, had hoped Evers would move toward the group’s goal of cutting the number of adult inmates. Instead, they ask why the first Evers budget projects that the number will actually grow.
DOC reported 23,464 adult inmates in Wisconsin prisons and rented cells on March 29, but the agency expects that number to be 24,659 – a 5 percent increase – by mid-2021.
To be fair, the Evers Administration is also wrestling with how to close the state’s two juvenile prisons and replace them with five regional facilities – two run by the state and three run by counties. A law that made fourth-offense OWI a felony is also boosting prison populations. And, it costs money to raise a guard’s starting wage beyond $17 an hour.
“I don’t see a lot of reform in the [Evers] budget,” Republican Sen. Alberta Darling said last week. “Justice reform is something we all want to work on.”
“It’s a complex issue that you [legislators] want to weigh in on,” responded DOC Secretary Kevin Carr.
Texas has closed eight prisons in recent years by reforming its criminal justice system, Carr added.
“The Governor’s campaign promise of reducing the prison population seems to have been moved to the back burner – or maybe completely off the stove,” WISDOM State Director David Liners charged.
The governor’s budget would add adult prison beds by January 2021: 288 new barracks-style beds at the Jackson County prison and 144 new barracks-style beds at the Taycheedah prison for women.
Those expansions would cost $6 million and require hiring 72 workers.
The Evers budget “plans for increases in prison capacity, both for the mid- and long-term future,” Liners added.
Liners also said reformers like him are disappointed that Evers has “announced no plans to do anything” to slow the thousands of adults each year returned to prison for “crimeless” or “technical” violations of the terms of their probation or parole.
DOC supervised 65,383 individuals statewide on probation and parole on March 29.
It costs about $33,000 a year to keep an adult in a Wisconsin prison, Carr noted, and $3,200 per year to supervise someone on probation and parole.
Criminal-justice reformers are also troubled that Evers has not named a chair of the Parole Commission, which could more actively review applications for release.
The Commission’s website says the chairperson job is “vacant” and calls Steven Landreman the “interim” chairperson.
Walker never visited a prison or issued a pardon as governor. That was cited by Democrats charging the Republican governor failed to take action on the troubled youth prisons and adult criminal justice reform.
Candidate Evers called for reforms and also promised to budget $15 million for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD) program, but his budget includes just $2 million, Liners complains.
Ending “crimeless” revocations, reforming the Parole Commission and funding TAD could reduce the number of adult inmates by between 7,000 and 9,000, Liners estimated.
“WISDOM and others who hoped that Gov. Evers would keep his promises to reform the criminal justice system are deeply disappointed,” he added.