Extreme Racial Disparities in Wisconsin’s Corrections System Have Worsened since King’s Death
As we contemplate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the unfinished business that needs to be tackled to achieve racial and ethnic equality, one of the issues that jump out at me is the huge growth in prison populations – particularly among African American males. That was a topic at many MLK observations across the nation today, but nowhere is it a bigger problem than in Wisconsin.
A report by the UWM Employment and Training Institute issued in 2013 pointed out the following data, most of which is derived from the 2010 Census:
- Wisconsin had a higher rate than any other state of working age African American men who were behind bars in state prisons and local jails; in fact, no other state was even close to the Wisconsin rate. (See the graph on page 8 of their report.)
- The WI incarceration rate of working age black males, 12.8%, is nearly double the national average of 6.7% of working age African American men, and 10 times the rate for white males in our state.
Spending on corrections has increased dramatically in Wisconsin in recent decades, reducing the resources available for quality schools, safe communities, and health care.
Wisconsin state spending on corrections rose by 308% between 1986 and 2013, when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation. Only eight states had larger increases in prison costs, measured as a percentage increase. Nationally, state corrections spending averaged an increase of 141% over this period, less than half of Wisconsin’s increase. Figures are from a new report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Wisconsin’s increase in spending on corrections has outpaced the increase in all our neighboring states. Corrections spending in Wisconsin increased twice as fast as spending in Minnesota since the mid-1980s, and nearly five times as fast as in Illinois.
This significant increase in corrections spending comes with very large opportunity costs. As corrections spending has increased, it takes up an increasingly large share of the state’s public resources. Read more
$900,000 per Month Increase in DOC Costs Is One of Several Unintended Effects
Rather than accepting enhanced federal Medicaid funds, the Governor proposes to pay for a 3-month delay in BadgerCare eligibility reductions by also delaying positive aspects of the budget bill, including the expansion of coverage for adults who don’t have dependent children. Obviously, the most disappointing aspect of financing the bill in that way is that the Governor is breaking his promise not to create a coverage gap for low-income childless adults. Another smaller and much less obvious problem is that the Special Session bill being considered by the Joint Finance Committee on December 2nd creates a $2.8 million GPR hole in the Department of Corrections budget.
The expansion of coverage to include adults without dependent children is projected to save the DOC about $900,000 per month by picking up a significant portion of the cost of hospitalizing inmates. Read more
Federal officials announced this week that they will seek to curtail the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for certain offenses. Wisconsin, which incarcerates a greater share of its population than many of its neighboring states, could reduce corrections costs by following the federal move to reduce sentences.
U.S. Attorney General Holder announced several new policies aimed at curbing soaring prison costs at the federal level, and correcting unfairness in the justice system. One of the most significant changes will be to scale back the use of federal laws that impose strict mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. Holder said that widespread incarceration is “ineffective and unsustainable” and “imposes a significant economic burden.”
The changes in federal policy would not affect sentencing at the state level, which is where most incarceration takes place. But by moving away from mandatory minimum sentences, the federal government may be setting an example for states to follow. Read more
Resolution (SJR 5) Would Finally Make Legislative Rule on Fiscal Estimates Consistent with Statute
For far too long, legislators have been making decisions about new criminal penalties without paying much attention to cost. A Senate Joint Resolution (SJR 5),which would address that longstanding problem, is scheduled for a committee vote this Tuesday, March 26.
Under the legislature’s current rules, any bill “increasing or decreasing existing appropriations or state or general local government fiscal liability or revenues shall carry a fiscal estimate,” but that rule (Joint Rule 41) contains an exception for bills changing criminal penalties. SJR 5, introduced by Senator Taylor, would eliminate that exemption. (The resolution is in the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications, and you can Senator’s press release describing it here.)
One of the very surprising and disappointing things about that fiscal estimate exemption in the legislature’s rules is that it conflicts with the statute! Read more
A smarter approach to criminal justice could reduce Wisconsin’s alarmingly large prison population and save the state millions of dollars. That’s the message brought to the state Capitol today by 11×15 Coalition for Justice, an alliance of faith-based groups. The group takes its name from its goal of reducing the state’s prison population to 11,000 people by the year 2015, down from its current level of about 21,000 people.
Wisconsin’s prison population has ballooned in recent decades, and costs have skyrocketed as well. Between 1990 and the high point in 2008, Wisconsin’s prison population nearly quadrupled, fueled in part by “tough on crime” initiatives that emphasized lengthy prison sentences. Since 2008, Wisconsin’s prison population has decreased slightly, but Wisconsin still imprisons a larger share of its population than many other states do. For example, Wisconsin’s incarceration rate is twice that of Minnesota, as shown in the chart below. It costs the state about $38,000 per year to house an inmate. Read more
As we noted in late December, the Secretary of the Dept. of Administration (DOA) submitted a plan on December 23 to lapse $123.3 million from agency budgets to the General Fund. The biennial budget bill required DOA to lapse $174.3 million, and DOA has determined that it needs to find most of that in the current fiscal year. More than a third of the proposed lapses come from the UW System, which would be required to give back $46 million by June 30 of this year.
The full legislature doesn’t need to approve the DOA plan and won’t have a chance to vote on it, but the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) is given the opportunity to review it. Because a JFC member objected to the plan, the committee has to meet to consider it. That meeting was announced this afternoon and is scheduled to be held on Wednesday, February 15, at 1:00 p.m. Read more
The budget lapses recommended by the Department of Corrections (DOC) remind me of an expression that was occasionally used by a former Milwaukee-area Congressman, Jerry Kleczka. I’ve been observing Wisconsin politics long enough to remember when Kleczka served in the state Senate and co-chaired the Joint Finance Committee during the early 1980s.
Senator Kleczka was a strong-willed co-chair who watched the state’s purse strings carefully and who didn’t mince words. As I recall, he was known at the time as a fiscally conservative Democrat, although I think a better description would be to call him “fiscally responsible.” He believed in fiscal choices that would keep the budget in balance over the long haul – in contrast to the short-term solutions that were more frequently employed in subsequent years by lawmakers in both parties.
One of the indelicate expressions Kleczka would occasionally use was “shifting the shaft” – by which he meant that the state was shifting its own fiscal problems onto others, such as local governments or property taxpayers. Read more