Keep two things in mind in assessing the consensus among Democratic gubernatorial candidates — and, apparently, former Governor Tommy Thompson — that Wisconsin incarcerates too many criminals.

  1. In 1990, there were 215,000 crimes reported in Wisconsin. Last year the total was 123,388.
  2. In 1990 Wisconsin prisons housed 7,332 inmates. At the start of this year the number was 23,200.

In other words, the expansion of Wisconsin’s inmate population coincides with a 43 percent reduction in crimes reported by the FBI. Research documents a causal link between reduced crime rates and the incarceration of serious, repeat offenders. The staggering cost of crime to victims is obviously much less, a factor almost never mentioned when discussing the higher costs of incarceration.

Contrary to the “criminal justice reform” narrative about “mass incarceration,” it’s actually hard to get a stiff prison sentence. In Milwaukee County, and other jurisdictions throughout the state, prosecutors and judges aggressively explore and experiment with “diversion programs” and “alternatives to incarceration.”  

The Wisconsin prison population constitutes about 25 percent of offenders under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. That’s right: three of four criminals are serving their sentence under what is euphemistically called “community supervision.” As any police chief can tell you, it’s those offenders who commit a disproportionate number of crimes.

And then there’s the bogus notion that prisons are crowded with “non-violent offenders.” Consider this from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau:

The predominant offenses by [male inmates] are sexual offenses, murder/ homicide, robbery, assaults, and burglary. The most common by women are murder/homicide, theft, assault, operating while intoxicated, and robbery.  

Further contradicting the notion that prisons house a significant number of “low-risk” criminals, the Fiscal Bureau reports that “average total sentence, including prison and community supervision, for inmates in adult institutions on July 1, 2016 was 21.3 years for males and 12.0 years for females.”

The Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley last week summarized positions advanced by Democrats who think letting thousands of inmates out early is either good policy or good politics. In an article headlined “Democrats running for governor call for slashing prison population,” Marley wrote:

Democrats running for governor are campaigning on prison reform, with many calling for cutting the inmate population in half…The eight Democrats…say they want to lower [prison] costs by scaling back the number of inmates. Many are calling for legalizing marijuana, releasing some inmates early, closing one or more prisons and ending parole and probation revocations for violating supervision rules.

To call this unforced error a gift to Governor Scott Walker and GOP legislative candidates is an understatement.  It only could have come from a party with national figures who embrace such memes as “Abolish ICE”.

In fairness to the Democratic slate, they might claim an ally of sorts in former Governor Thompson. In a recent 1,000+-word essay in the Journal Sentinel, he observed:

I presided over the largest expansion of our state’s prison system, believing our families are safer as a result. But I’ve also come to believe that our corrections system and incarceration practices are both financially unsustainable and provide questionable outcomes worthy of strenuous review.

Thompson (and his contributing co-author Steve Hurley) are correct in one important respect. Namely, most inmates will be released. For a range of obvious reasons, they will have a very difficult time working their way back into society.  They often lack a high school diploma. Many grew up in an environment of social dysfunction. A history of substance abuse is common.

No one with a bit of common sense can oppose Thompson’s goal of helping released offenders avoid the revolving door of recidivism which victimizes more innocent people and earns the offender a trip back to prison.  But that worthwhile goal too often verges into the realm of magical thinking when paired with the rhetoric of “mass incarceration” or, in Thompson’s case, “financially unsustainable” incarceration practices.

It is a serious mistake to advance the legitimate challenge of offender re-integration with a broad-brush indictment of the overall correctional system.  

Doing so — under the bromide of “criminal justice reform” — discounts the undeniable reality of (1) who goes to prison and (2) the likely impact of incarceration on crime.  

The hard and regrettable fact is that a small segment of the state’s population is incorrigible. The life history of many inmates is a tragic chronicle of dysfunctional “homes” and neighborhoods that are marked by all the predictors of crime. Most talk about “root causes” of crime skates past these hard realities.

In the end, “criminal justice reform” too often amounts to giving up. The real challenge — the tough challenge ignored by many elected officials in both parties — involves addressing the culture of dysfunction and decay that is the breeding ground for future criminals.

George MitchellGeorge Mitchell managed the team that planned and built the Milwaukee County Criminal Justice Center. He also also managed the team of specialists who prepared the state’s 1990 correctional system master plan. He has written several studies of the state’s criminal justice system.