For probationers in Wisconsin, a probation hold, a decision made by a probation officer to lock up a probationer for any number of reasons, can mean the difference between being employed or not. A hold can be issued to start a probation revocation process, to sanction the probationer for a minor violation, or even just to investigate some allegation of wrongdoing.

Probation holds can be detrimental to employment since the decision to issue a hold does not have independent oversight.  Unlike every other type of arrest, the district attorney does not review a probation hold and the probationer is not permitted to appear before a judge and ask for bail.  The authority and decision to keep a probationer in custody is solely in the hands of the Department of Corrections.

The length of a probation hold may vary.  They can last just a couple days or, on the other end, the hold can last through the entire probation revocation process which can take months.  Because of the unpredictability of length, a common consequence of probation hold can often lead to the loss of a job.  Not surprisingly, employers are reluctant to keep the probationer on the payroll when there is no end in sight to the incarceration.

Senator Dan Feyen and Representative Ron Tusler want to rectify the problem by making work release available to misdemeanor probationers on holds for technical violations.  The result will be steadier employment and a smoother transition back to the community.  As the authors of the bill point out in a memo to their fellow legislators, “We should be facilitating employment initiatives whenever possible, not perpetuating a system where people are set up to lose their jobs.”

Work release is not a novel concept.  Jail sentences in Wisconsin typically come with work release privileges.  The local sheriff oversees the program and has the ability to determine acceptable uses of work release.  Expanding work release to probationers would not create problems sheriffs are not used to handling.

In fact, expanding work release will have a tremendously positive impact on county jails.  The DOC reimburses counties who house probation holds, but not at a rate that covers costs.  The statutory reimbursement rate is forty dollars a day for probation holds.  Work release inmates pay a daily rate for the privilege of working that will help with the difference between the DOC reimbursement rate and actual costs.

In addition to the fiscal impact, work release inmates are more likely to behave behind bars.  Recently, the superintendent of the Milwaukee House of Corrections testified before the legislature about another work release expansion bill and commented work release inmates pose less problems to jailers.  He based the increase in safety on the fact a work release inmate has something very important that can be taken away by the sheriff.

Senate Bill 339 and Assembly Bill 424 are good signs the Legislature is starting to take a serious look at the predictable consequences of a system that incarcerates without oversight.