Now, let's look at real reform

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Wisconsin's bloated system of corrections is neither good nor sustainable.

LAST WEEK THE newspaper accepted an invitation for a briefing on a Republican-backed package intended to address certain issues in the criminal justice system.

Key players in the briefing were Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Kelli Thompson, who leads Wisconsin's public defenders program.

Specifically, the package proposed calls for spending about $50 million more to raise pay for public defenders and private lawyers appointed by the courts to defend clients when public defenders are not available. The plan also raises the budget for prosecutors and adds some assistant district attorneys around Wisconsin based on a complex workload analysis. The package also asks Gov. Tony Evers to work on improving retention of prison guards, support better diversion programs and improve prisoner programs for returning to society.

ALL GOOD AND we endorse the effort, which in large measure seeks to correct problems state government basically created for itself over the years by not regularly adjusting compensation to meet market conditions. Here's just one example. Defenders are paying $40 an hour for court-appointed private attorneys; the new package would raise it to $70.

Seriously, try to hire a lawyer for $40 an hour.

These changes address structural problems that have slowed administration of justice and deserve support from both sides of the political aisle. Evers should include such changes in his budget proposal, due soon to be delivered to legislators.

HAVING SAID THAT, much remains to be said - and done.

At the heart of the proposed package is this reality: It's basically just a pay raise.

Meanwhile, issues festering in Wisconsin's criminal justice and corrections system are deep and wide:

• Let's start at the pre-trial level. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has done good work pointing out the inequities of cash bond, which essentially results in well-to-do defendants posting and walking out of jail while poor people sit behind bars. Justice shouldn't depend on how fat is the wallet you sit on.

• Meanwhile, the bail system often sets relatively low dollar amounts that can allow dangerous individuals to bond out. Beloit has experienced situations in which such individuals have reoffended while out on bond, yet another argument for a better system.

• THE STATE OF Wisconsin incarcerates people at a higher rate than any of its neighbors including Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.

• The cost of doing so is astronomical for taxpayers, at about $2.2 billion. That's more than citizens pay to support the world-renowned University of Wisconsin system, at $2.1 billion.

• Wisconsin has more than 23,000 people locked up, with another 65,000 on probation or parole. The Department of Corrections' numbers say that exceeds design capacity for state prison facilities. So should taxpayers ante up to put more people away? Build even more prisons?

• Only two categories of state spending exceed what Wisconsin shells out for corrections - K-12 public education and healthcare funding, largely Medicaid.

• The obvious: The more Wisconsin spends on inmates, the less it can spend to support all the other needs of law-abiding citizens.

HERE'S SOMETHING just as obvious. The impact of a bloated corrections system does not stop at the prison walls. Communities are harmed, because the families of inmates are left alone and often destitute. Kids grow up without dads, and sometimes live in trauma. Social problems weighing on urban school systems do not happen in a vacuum - it's all connected.

Likewise, sooner or later most of the inmates will get out and probably return to where they came from. Will they have learned a trade and be able to support themselves and their families? Will any substance abuse or mental health problems have been addressed?

Look, no one wants to just fling open the prison doors and send everybody home. Dangerous predators belong behind bars for as long as possible.

But it's acceptable to talk and look for solutions to reducing inmate populations along with costs to taxpayers and the social toll on communities. In fact, what's unacceptable is the reluctance of the political class to do just that.

WE GET IT. When elections roll around no politician wants to be on the wrong side of a "soft on crime" attack ad. The electoral constituency for reducing prison populations is not exactly robust.

So politicians - on both sides - need to reframe the issue.

First, acknowledge in bipartisan fashion that prison is the right place for individuals with a history of violence. Put them away for as long as possible.

Then move the debate to more productive issues - bond reform, diversion practices, addressing substance abuse and mental health, re-entry strategies, family integration, vocational training, after-incarceration support programs and more.

Stress the budget benefits, and the ability to invest in other projects and programs if corrections can be made more efficient. Stress the social and economic benefits for families and communities if absentee heads of households are reunited in positive ways.

THERE'S NO OVERNIGHT fix, but then, there never has been. Truth in sentencing - ripe for reform - was a Wisconsin law intended to address crime by taking away judicial discretion, resulting in longer sentences without release options. Such plans may have fit the "tough on crime" political necessity of the moment, but the long-term result is that expensive number documenting Wisconsin's rate of incarceration laps neighboring states.

It's not soft on crime to try to be smarter than that.

So let's raise pay for court officials. Then let's get busy with the more important aspects of reform.

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