WALTERS: Request for more adult prison beds criticized

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When he campaigned for governor last year, Democrat Tony Evers criticized Republican Gov. Scott Walker for signing a budget that spent more state tax dollars on prisons than on the UW System.

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.

Although both agencies would get more than $2.2 billion over the next two years - with DOC getting $115 million more - the gap is a symbolic failure to those who wanted Evers to champion criminal justice reform.

Leaders of groups like WISDOM, for example, had hoped Evers would begin to 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 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% 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 said.

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.

A reorganized Parole Commission could consider about 3,000 "'old law' prisoners who were sentenced in the last century by judges who expected them to be home by now," Liners said.

Those inmates are eligible for release because they were sentenced before the passage of "three strikes" laws that made those convicted after those laws ineligible for release.

Walker never visited a prison, or issued a pardon, as governor.

Liners said candidate Evers also promised to budget $15 million for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD) program, but his budget includes just $2 million.

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.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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