Overdue Change in Criminal Justice Policymaking Gets a Committee Vote This Tuesday
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! Back in 2001, the legislature passed a law (signed by Gov. McCallum) removing the exception from the statutes, but legislators have never amended Joint Rule 41 to make it consistent with the amended statute.
For the last two or three decades, getting tough on crime has been such a high priority for legislators that it has often trumped concerns about the cost of tougher criminal policies. Legislators haven’t even helped shed light on the costs by making penalty bills subject to the usual fiscal estimate requirements. That probably helps explain why the state’s prison population quadrupled from 1990 to 2008, and why Department of Corrections spending from the General Fund has surpassed the General Fund appropriation for the University System.
As Tamarine Cornelius wrote in a recent Budget Project Blog post, there has been a growing push from policymakers across the country to think carefully about how to make more effective use of the substantial public spending for the corrections system. See also today’s (3/24/13) NY Times editorial, Shrinking Prisons, Saving Billions. That sentiment is being advanced in Wisconsin by a broad coalition of faith-based groups participating in the 11×15 Coalition for Justice. The coalition organized a March 14 event in Madison attended by more than 1,000 people from all across Wisconsin, who rallied and met with lawmakers to call on them to make cost-effective investments in treatment and alternatives to incarceration.
Changing the legislative rules to have cost estimates made for bills changing criminal penalties isn’t necessarily going to shrink the size of Wisconsin’s prison population and corrections system spending, but getting legislators to pay attention to those costs is an essential first step toward rational and transparent policymaking.
It should also be noted that the legislature has initiated an ambitious process this session of reviewing and considering changes to agency rules, an effort the majority party calls “righting the rules.” By passing SJR 5, the legislature can finally ‘right” one of its own rules. The time is long overdue to ensure that policymakers and the public have information on the cost of proposed changes in criminal penalties, and to make the legislature’s rules consistent with the statutes.