The three top issues confronting the Legislature when it convenes in January will be education, transportation, and corrections.

With respect to corrections, two important developments occurred this week. Both were obscured by the inevitable political hot air leading up to November 6.

First, the Tommy G. Thompson Center On Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin announced support for research projects on the longstanding challenge of reducing criminal recidivism. To Governor Thompson’s credit, he is pairing his widely publicized mea culpa comments on prison construction with a substantive effort to examine the seemingly intractable challenge of integrating released prison offenders back in to society.

Second, the scrupulously nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) issued a concise policy brief that is an antidote to the fact-starved rhetoric surrounding much current talk about “mass incarceration” and “criminal justice reform.” The WPF data highlight the gap between rhetoric and reality that leads some observers, including Tony Evers, to suggest naively there is an easy path to reducing Wisconsin’s prison population.

Here are four Thompson Center research projects to be undertaken by UW-Madison scholars:

  1. “Can Second Chances for Inmates Work for Wisconsin?”
  2. “Jobs. Skills and the Prison-to-Work Transition”
  3. “An Assessment of a Vocational Training Program to Prepare Wisconsin’s Prison Population for Skilled Employment.”
  4. “The Milwaukee Reentry Alliance Project”

I have lost count of the supposedly “evidence-based” research reports that purport to show “what works” in terms of reducing incarceration and recidivism. The scholars chosen by the Thompson Center for the work described above are entering a world of scholarship that is often dominated by pre-determined agendas and conclusions. Governor Thompson will do the state a great favor if he makes it clear that his interest is in academic research of the highest standards.

The issue’s importance is underscored at the outset of the WPF report. It states, “New figures from the state Department of Corrections show Wisconsin’s adult prison population will reach a record 25,000 inmates by 2021. While inmate numbers aren’t growing as fast as during the massive expansion of the 1990s, recent increases could require an additional $149.4 million in state funds for the 2019-21 budget.”

WPF reports that DOC’s budget request for 2019-21 “would raise DOC’s total annual spending to $1.37 billion by 2021. The request…highlights Corrections’ status as one of the largest and costliest programs in state government.”

According to WPF, three major factors explain the near tripling of the prison population since 1990: sentence lengths imposed by judges; changes in criminal penalties by lawmakers; and the severity of offenses that have resulted in convictions.

A pervasive myth that dominates the corrections debate holds that many/most prison inmates are low-risk offenders. As I wrote here recently, according to 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.”

WPF confirms that assessment. Under the heading “Serious Crimes, Serious Time,” it describes “the rising share of inmates serving time for violent crimes. These numbers rose from 59.4% of inmates in 2006 to 66.0% in 2017.” Directly addressing the assumption that “most inmates are nonviolent drug offenders who do not require incarceration,” WPF matter-of-factly observes that “corrections data do not appear to bear that out.”

Other skeptics of current incarceration levels (correctly) note that a growing share of the inmate population consists of offenders who have violated probation or parole. While these inmates supposedly have returned to prison for “technical violations,” in truth the DOC policy and practice clearly treat re-incarceration as a last resort, one reserved for serious violations.

It remains irrefutable that the growth in Wisconsin prison populations has coincided with a significant decline — 43 percent — in crimes reported to the FBI. While that is a correlation, and not a causal link, the decline is consistent with credible scholarship, using data from other jurisdictions, that establishes such causation. Those who claim that thousands of inmates could be safely released without affecting crime levels are welcome to that opinion; in my view it’s magical thinking.

Whoever is elected governor next Tuesday will immediately confront the need to address the corrections issue in preparing his biennial budget for 2019-21. One hopes the research sponsored by the Thompson Center, and the nonpartisan factual assessment of the LFB and WPF, will inform the resulting debate.