State Director, Wisconsin
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Thomas Lyons | July 24, 2017
Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee, the group in charge of modifying Governor Walker’s budget, took decisive action towards improving treatment opportunities for prisoners.
In 1999, Wisconsin implemented truth in sentencing. As a result, a prison sentence is bifurcated between time spent in custody and time spent in extended supervision. Custody is the initial confinement in prison. Extended supervision takes place in communities. So, a person can be sentenced to ten years ‘in prison,’ but it can consist of five years of initial confinement followed by five years of extended supervision. There is no mechanism for reducing the time spent in incarcerated (like credits for good behavior), but there are two programs that help. One program is essentially a boot camp called the Challenge Incarceration Program. The other, the Earned Release Program, is the focal point of the newly established Joint Finance Committee.
The Earned Release Program is designed to address alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) issues that contributed to the crime. To be eligible, it must be determined by the judge at the time of sentencing that a person has an identifiable AODA issue and meets the appropriate requirements. After that, the person will be further evaluated when they enter the prison system. If the person is found to be a good candidate, they will eventually enter an intensive program varying in length of time based on their assessment. Once they complete the program, any remaining time on their initial confinement sentence converts to extended supervision.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) lacks the personnel to address the treatment needs of all eligible prisoners, and this results in a backlog. In February of this year, DOC reported more than 3,500 inmates met the eligibility requirements. With current staffing levels only about 1,400 of those inmates can complete the program in a year. To address this problem, Governor Walker has proposed adding sixteen new staffing positions to help clear the backlog. Not only would more inmates get the treatment DOC determined they needed, but the taxpayers would save more than $3.5 million over the next two years.
The Joint Finance Committee took the Governor’s proposal even further. Rather than add the sixteen positions requested, they added twenty-one. The change will result in another $1.3 million in savings. But, the committee also decided to allow DOC to create treatment programs to address a number of issues beyond AODA. By doing so, the committee correctly determined many underlying issues can lead to crime and the state should make a concerted effort to provide necessary treatment options.
Adding positions to address the backlog and expanding program opportunities benefits both inmates and taxpayers, but most importantly enhances public safety. The prisoner receives the help they need to lead a productive, law-abiding life. The court system gains credibility by having an option that does not merely promise a program underfunded to the point of being inaccessible.