There are high social and fiscal costs to monitoring and incarcerating parolees. Wisconsin should consider reasonable reforms.

By Julie Grace for the Badger Institute

Wisconsin has a high rate of reincarceration, but it’s not exclusively the result of criminal behavior.

Rules of extended supervision, which are designed to govern the behavior of ex-offenders’ after their release, instead increase the likelihood that the individuals will return to prison. Wisconsin policy-makers should consider reasonable reforms from other states that have reduced the number of ex-offenders who end up reincarcerated.

Offenders incarcerated in Wisconsin are subject to two phases of punishment. First, they face time behind bars. Once their initial confinement is complete, they are placed on extended supervision, a period of months or years during which they are closely monitored by the state and governed by a list of sometimes arbitrary rules that restrict their freedoms.

Those placed on extended supervision — especially for long periods — are more likely to be sent back to prison for either a revocation based on a rules violation, a revocation with a new sentence or a new sentence based on a new crime. The reality is that the longer a person is subject to a number of rules and restrictions, the more likely he or she is to violate one of them. The result is a cycle of incarceration that often has nothing to do with the individual committing a new crime.

Wisconsin should reform its extended supervision laws so that supervision conditions are related to the original crime. A decrease in the rate of reincarceration for supervision violations would lead to a decrease in the overall prison population, keeping more families intact, providing more workers for the labor force and saving taxpayers’ money.

Wisconsin’s prison population — now 23,561 inmates — has more than tripled since 1990. With a design capacity of 17,887 inmates, the state’s prisons are overcrowded.

One driver of prison population growth in the state is the number of offenders on extended supervision who return to prison. A recent analysis estimates that of those who were reincarcerated from extended supervision in Wisconsin, 5,200 were not convicted of a new crime.

The large number of burdensome mandates on supervised returning citizens makes perfect compliance practically impossible. In Wisconsin, offenders on extended supervision, probation or parole must follow 18 standard rules, in addition to whatever others that parole or probation officers may impose (DOC 328.04). Break one of these rules and you might end up back prison — even if your track record has been exemplary for years. The state Department of Corrections, courts and laws impose the following standard rules on all supervised returning citizens:

  1. Avoid all violations of federal or state statutes, municipal or county ordinances, tribal law or that which is not in the best interest of the public or personal rehabilitation.
  2. Report all arrests to police or parole agent within three days.
  3. Cooperate with counseling offered during period of supervision — including the exchange of information between the police department and court-ordered programs like counseling.
  4. Report whereabouts and activities to parole or probation officer as directed.
  5. Submit a written report or any other relevant information to Department of Community Corrections staff.
  6. Be available for searches of residence, property, computer, cellphone or other electronic devices.
  7. Be available for tests such as urinalysis, breathalyzer, DNA collection and blood samples.
  8. Get approval from agent before changing residence or employment.
  9. Get approval from agent and a travel permit before leaving Wisconsin.
  10. Get approval from agent to purchase, trade, sell or operate a motor vehicle.
  11. Get approval from agent to borrow money or purchase on credit.
  12. Pay court-ordered fees of up to $60 per month, depending on monthly income that help cover the cost of supervision.
  13. Get approval from agent to purchase, possess, own or carry a firearm or other weapon or ammunition.
  14. Do not vote in any federal, state or local election until the completion of terms and conditions of felony sentence.
  15. If confined, follow all rules of any detention or correctional facility.
  16. Provide true, accurate and complete information in response to DOC staff inquiries.
  17. Report for scheduled and unscheduled appointments.
  18. Comply with any additional court-ordered conditions or rules established by agent, which can be modified at any time.

These conditions of extended supervision are meant to deter ex-offenders from committing new crimes by placing them under the watchful eye of the state. Yet oftentimes, they are the very reason offenders return to prison.

Currently, 54.3 percent of those who were sent back to prison while on supervision in Wisconsin are for revocations only. In other words, a majority of reincarcerated individuals on supervision do not commit new crimes. Yet we’re imposing our most intensive form of punishment on them through incarceration, costing taxpayers large sums in the process.

While individual prison stays may seem relatively inexpensive ($89 a day for males), they quickly add up.

One study found that, in 2015, DOC reincarcerated about 3,000 people who did not commit a new crime in Wisconsin. On average, these individuals spent 1.5 years in prison, costing taxpayers $147.5 million. Assuming this rate has remained steady since then, Badger State residents have footed more than $590 million in needless incarceration — generating massive social costs as well.

Those who cycle in and out of prison for technical violations often lose their jobs, fall behind on rent and child-support payments and become absent from their families, communities and society. Over-supervising (and over-incarcerating) those on extended supervision forces entire families into poverty.

Not only do Wisconsin’s extended supervision laws contribute to the state’s mass incarceration and cost taxpayers millions each year, they affect the social fabric of communities across the state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Wisconsin’s extended supervision laws are atypical compared to other states in two ways.

First, the state’s truth-in-sentencing laws require every conviction resulting in incarceration to include initial confinement and a period of extended supervision, the latter of which must be at least 25 percent as long as the initial confinement. In contrast, other states have imposed caps for offenders on supervision.

In Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon, no felony offender’s probation can exceed five years. Washington has caps as low as one year. Yet in Wisconsin, time spent on extended supervision can be as long as the maximum sentence minus the amount of time served.

Additionally, Wisconsin does not credit offenders for time spent following the rules of extended supervision as a way to reduce their sentence. Other states provide incentives for offenders to comply with supervision conditions.

In Louisiana, for instance, supervised offenders can earn 30 days off their supervision for every month of perfect compliance. Kentucky also offers compliance credit for supervised offenders. These options don’t exist in Wisconsin.

This is problematic considering that the less time an offender is on extended supervision, the less likely it is that he or she will return to prison. In Wisconsin, the average time on parole is over three years, which is 1.7 times greater than the average across all states and longer than any other state average (with the exceptions of Alabama and Oklahoma).

Other states have passed reforms that shorten the time offenders spend under supervision. Mississippi and Maryland, for instance, have implemented graduated sanctions for offenders who commit technical violations. So when supervised offenders violate a condition of their supervision, they’re not automatically sent back to prison. Rather, their parole or probation officer conducts a risk-and-needs assessment and imposes a suitable response to their violation.

In Mississippi, these responses include verbal warnings, increased reporting, increased drug and alcohol testing, mandatory substance abuse treatment and jail stays that don’t exceed four days a month. These reforms, passed with bipartisan support in 2014, are expected to save taxpayers at least $266 million through 2024. In addition, by using prison space mainly for violent and career criminals, the reforms safely lowered the state’s prison population, which was rapidly growing.

As Wisconsin lawmakers consider ways to reduce the state’s growing prison population while maintaining public safety, they should consider reforms to its extended supervision laws.

Shortening the length of time for offenders on extended supervision through caps or incentives have produced positive results in other states. Not only would such reforms reduce Wisconsin’s prison population, they would reunite families and offer ex-offenders a greater chance for successful reintegration in their communities.

Julie Grace is a policy analyst in the Badger Institute’s Center for Opportunity.