Wisconsin’s Prison Price Tag: Still Growing

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 at 1:34 PM by

A leading official in Governor Walker’s administration has said that the state will need to spend more money – soon – to expand the state’s prison capacity. State policymakers should take this opportunity to reform the state’s corrections system in a way that locks up fewer people, keeps costs down, and protects public safety.

An article in the Wisconsin State Journal describes the official’s statements:

“Growing by 35 inmates each month, the state prison system is out of room and will need more beds within three years, the head of the state’s corrections system said Thursday.

‘To be candid with you, we will need some relief and we will need it sooner than 2020,’ Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher told lawmakers.”

Wisconsin’s prison population has increased dramatically in recent decades. The article notes:

“The state’s prison population has more than tripled in the last 25 years, according to DOC data. In 1990, there were 6,953 inmates in the state’s prisons. That number jumped to 20,000 by 2000, and spiked at a little more than 23,000 in 2007 before dropping over the following years. Since 2011, the population has been rising, to more than 23,000 at the end of 2016.”

As the prison population has exploded, so have the costs associated with the state’s corrections system. The state spent $1.2 billion on corrections services in 2017, more tax dollars than the state spent on the University of Wisconsin System. In fact, the state spends more tax dollars on the corrections system than any other purpose except K-12 education and health care for people with low incomes.

Wisconsin spends more on corrections than the national average – a sign that the state should be working to reduce corrections costs rather than increasing costs by expanding the prison population. Wisconsin state and local governments spent $1.5 billion on corrections in 2015. That’s over a tenth more — 12% — on corrections per state resident than the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Nationally, only nine states spent more on corrections per state resident than Wisconsin. (Making useful comparisons of spending levels among states requires combining both state and local government spending, since various duties are performed at different levels of government in different states.)

Wisconsin state and local governments spend more on corrections than in the neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. Wisconsin spends 6% more per state resident on corrections than Michigan, the neighboring state with the highest corrections costs, and 90% more on corrections per state resident than Iowa. If Wisconsin spent the same amount as Iowa on corrections per state resident, our state and local governments would spend $728 million less on corrections each year.

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One of the reasons Wisconsin spends more per state resident than our neighboring states is that Wisconsin incarcerates a larger share of our population than our neighboring states. The cost of incarcerating an inmate in a Wisconsin medium security prison for one year is nearly $30,000 according to a recent estimate from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Wisconsin has more people in prison or jail for our state size than Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Wisconsin incarcerates twice as many people for our population size as Minnesota.

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In addition to exacting a price from state taxpayers’ pocketbooks, Wisconsin’s costly overreliance on incarceration inflicts a great deal of damage on communities and families, particularly those of color. Wisconsin incarcerates a far higher share of African-American men than any other state, damaging families and individuals and keeping them from reaching their full potential. The consequences of high rates of incarceration harm the economic stability of families and weaken the state’s economy.

Fortunately, there are concrete steps Wisconsin can take to bring down the high monetary and community cost of its corrections policies – as long as state policymakers are willing to make fundamental reforms to the system instead of just adding new prison beds:

  • Wisconsin can expand an approach with a proven track record of keeping people out of prison. Wisconsin’s Treatment Alternative and Diversions (TAD) program awards state grants to counties for programs that keep people with addiction and mental health issues out of jail and prison, and in effective treatment programs. Each dollar the state invests in the TAD program saves $1.96 in public costs by reducing incarceration and lowering the risk that offenders will commit new crimes – but these grants are not available in all counties at this point.
  • Wisconsin can reduce the number of prison admissions that do not involve new convictions. Many people are sent to Wisconsin prisons because they violated a condition of their probation or parole, not because they are convicted of a new crime. The price tag for incarcerating people for rules violations adds up fast: Revocations for technical reasons that don’t stem from new convictions cost the state in the neighborhood of $140 million per year.
  • Wisconsin can reduce recidivism by removing barriers to getting a job. Getting a job helps people leaving prison provide for their families and contribute to their communities, but obstacles can stand between people leaving incarceration and obtaining regular employment. The transitional job program provides employers with a temporary subsidy if they hire individuals with low incomes who meet certain criteria, thereby helping the individuals develop work-related skills they need to find employment on their own after the subsidy ends. Wisconsin’s current transitional job program is small, and should be expanded.

There is plenty of interest in conservative circles at the national level and in other states in looking at alternatives to incarceration as a way to bring down costs, but Wisconsin policymakers haven’t yet made it a priority. As lawmakers face the reality that Wisconsin prisons are already well past their intended capacity, and that locking up additional people will entail significant additional costs, perhaps they can be persuaded to implement the approaches that other states are using to save money and strengthen communities.

Tamarine Cornelius

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