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On Behalf of | Aug 27, 2020 | Firm News

The Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution which states that “despite increasing use of incarceration and greater spending on corrections, recidivism rates have continued to escalate” so that the “the public desires and deserves criminal justice systems that promote public safety while making effective use of taxpayer dollars.” Resolution 12 In Support of Sentencing Practices that Promote Public Safety and Reduce Recidivism, CONFERENCE OF CHIEF JUSTICES CONFERENCE OF STATE COURT ADMINISTRATORS,

Despite this resolution which courts were urged to follow, Wisconsin sentencing courts continue to rely too heavily on incarceration to solve its crime problem at great cost to Wisconsin taxpayers.  Wisconsin incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 of its residents: more than countries like Cuba (510) and Rwanda (492).   Even the Russian Federation incarcerates less of its residents per capita than Wisconsin at 475.  States of Incarceration: The Global Context (Prison Policy Initiative 2014),  Sadly, a 2019 analysis of state prison populations by the Legislative Audit Bureau showed the state’s adult prison inmate population increased by 7.9 percent between 2011 and 2018, from nearly 22,000 people to about 23,600.  “When compared with six other Midwestern states,” the report’s authors wrote, “only Wisconsin experienced an increase in its inmate population from 2009 to 2018.”  Adult Corrections Expenditures, State of Wisconsin, Report 19-4 (May 2019), p. 4,  Emphasis added.  As of 2015, Outagamie County was one of the top ten of 72 counties contributing to Wisconsin’s prison population explosion.  Incarceration trends in Wisconsin (Vera Institute of Justice December 2019),

How much does imprisonment cost Wisconsin’s taxpayers?  Total operating expenditures for adult correctional institutions increased from an estimated $909.3 million in FY 2013-14 to $933.9 million in FY 2017-18, or by 2.7 percent. This cost was mostly funded by general purpose revenue (GPR) at more than 93 percent of total expenditures in both years.  Id.  To provide a more complete accounting of the costs of imprisonment, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice collected and analyzed data from forty states (including Wisconsin).  Their findings were published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 68 (2012).  In calculating average cost per inmate, the Vera researchers found Wisconsin imprisonment cost the state’s taxpayers $37,994 a year.  Unlike Wisconsin, other states have found a way to trim their prison budgets.  For instance, Wisconsin spent over one billion dollars on corrections in 2010, in comparison with Minnesota’s $439 million.  Marquette Law Professor Michael O’Hear, “Thoughts on Imprisonment in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future,” Life Sentences Blog, (“Thoughts on Imprisonment in Wisconsin”).
“If Wisconsin had Minnesota’s imprisonment rate, hundreds of millions of dollars would be freed up for other valuable purposes, such as tax relief, education, and infrastructure improvement.  Savings could also be directed to other purposes that might reduce crime and violence more effectively than institutional warehousing, such as increased funding for community policing, problem-solving courts, and treatment for addiction and chronic mental illness.”  Id.

Unfortunately, evidence shows that while spending on education, treatment, and other services that help people improve their well-being have been shown to be a more effective public safety strategy than locking people up, between 2005 and 2009 state spending on corrections grew faster than any other category, including education, Medicaid and public assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program providing temporary financial assistance for pregnant women and families.  Sarah Lyons and Nastassia Walsh, “Money Well Spent: How Positive Social Investments Will Reduce Incarceration Rates, Improve Public Safety, and Promote the Well-Being of Communities,” Justice Policy Institute (2010),  Investments in job training, employment and education have been associated with heightened public safety as well as community well being. Id.  In addition, people who are incarcerated are more likely to report having had extended periods of unemployment and lower wages than people in the general population.  Id.

Incarceration also imposes significant costs beyond the criminal system to society and families.  The Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010),  For instance, imprisonment encourages unemployment which leads to crime.  Wells, Lenard, Ph.D., “The effects of a criminal history and race on the willingness to hire ex -offenders in the labor market,” (Cardinal Stritch University 2008) publication number 3313857  See also, Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (University of Chicago Press 2007) (based on her work with the Transitional Housing Authority in Madison, WI, the author finds the criminal system is not a peripheral institution in the lives of young black disadvantaged men who are asked more often by job interviewers if they have a criminal record than white applicants).

Requiring cost effective criminal sentencing is not some “pie in the sky” liberal babble.  A Pew Report quotes a number of US business leaders across various states “adding their voices to calls for more cost-effective ways to protect public safety and hold offenders accountable, while also providing the education and infrastructure they need for a thriving economy.”  Right Sizing Prisons: Business Leaders Make the Case for Corrections Reform (Pew Center on the States 2010),  As Dave Adkisson, Chairman of the Board, American Chamber of Commerce Executives, put it, “I began talking with other business leaders about whether we were spending our corrections dollars effectively…. we were alarmed that money was being siphoned off from education and channeled into the growing cost of corrections, and we knew we needed to address this issue.”  James R. Holcomb Vice President for Business Advocacy and Associate General Counsel, Michigan Chamber of Commerce added “every dollar spent on incarceration is a dollar that is unavailable for tax relief or other economic revitalization efforts.”

The clear message to a sentencing court, as put by Dr. Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stolz Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Economics, Brown University, is that “[t]he amount of public safety ‘purchased’ for society by using prisons on the scale that we are now using them does not justify the cost incurred to hold prisoner behind bars, let alone the cost we’re imposing on prisoners and the communities from which they come.”  Responsive Testimony to Questions from Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott before the Joint Economic Committee Hearing of the 110th Congress, First Session (October 4, 2007) , p.54,