Like too many states, Wisconsin is facing a dual problem of overcrowded and aging correctional institutions combined with a failing prison system. The issue has made many headlines over the last two years when the legislature looked at proposals to close Green Bay Correctional Institution – opened in 1898- and build a new prison to accommodate the closure. The old building design and other outdated features have raised concern regarding both the safety of correction officers and inmates.
Wisconsin’s longest serving governor, Tommy Thompson, was recently interviewed at Marquette Law School. He covered a large swath of criminal justice reform ideas, especially as they relate to workforce development. He also addressed how Wisconsin should cope with our dual problem. Acknowledging there is no doubt that some people need to be imprisoned based on their crimes, Governor Thompson argued, “We have too many people locked up that should be rehabilitated, retrained and allowed to get out and take a job.” In other words, the current truth in sentencing laws enacted during Governor Thompson’s administration have done a disservice to rehabilitating offenders and building a successful path to reentry. During his talk at Marquette Law, Governor Thompson apologized for many of these “tough on crime” policies.
Putting aside the consideration of whether such a policy needs to be re-examined when economic situations change, the main point is that the current sentencing scheme and prison system is not achieving the goals of protecting the public. He raises the question of whether justice or public safety require such a rigid sentencing scheme when treatment options offered at an in-custody setting can achieve the same ends.
Wisconsin is positioned to address the problems of overcrowded and unsafe prisons at the same time. Assuming there is only one solution, e.g. building new prisons, to a problem is folly. Old prisons that pose significant risk to officers and inmates alike need to be addressed and closed if necessary. It would be foolish to not examine why so many prisons are needed in the first place. The legislature and the administration should closely examine if truth sentencing, as it exists today, simply results in warehousing people. As Governor Thompson suggested it’s not benefitting public safety.