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Will November’s Election Results Finally Result in Prison Reform?

 Posted on November 13, 2018 in Criminal Defense

Milwaukee criminal defense lawyerBy Raymond Dall’Osto

After working in the Wisconsin criminal justice field for the past 40 years, I have learned a great deal. For one, the populations of state and federal prisons have increased from 250,000 to 1,500,000 during that time, even though the overall crime rate has decreased substantially. In 2010, there were 186,000 inmates in federal prisons, 98,000 of whom were incarcerated for drug crimes. When I began practicing law, the state of Wisconsin had fewer than 4,000 inmates in prison, but the number of inmates is now more than 20,000. Even though the crime rate has decreased, the U.S. continues to lead the world in the rate of people who are incarcerated. Many of us wonder how our society has reached this point and what can be done to fix the problem.

Harsh mandatory minimum sentence laws, increased sentence structures for felony offenses, and longer sentences being imposed by judges have all led to over-incarceration. Additional factors include the unavailability of parole or the elimination of programs providing early release for prisoners with good behavior or who have successfully completed treatment.

Unfortunately, incarceration does not act as a deterrent or cure for crime. Instead, it creates isolation for prisoners, making them non-productive members of society who are fully dependent on the criminal justice system. Imprisonment rarely results in rehabilitation or provides effective treatment, and it does not provide prisoners with life skills or job training that will help them become reintegrated into society after their release.

Studies by the National Research Council (NRC) have found that mass imprisonment is not an effective method for reducing certain crimes, including drug crimes and juvenile offenses. In fact, these studies have shown that criminal behavior declines as people get older, beginning when they reach their mid-20s and falling significantly as they reach their 30s and 40s. Rates of recidivism fall sharply as age increases, and due to these findings, the NRC study concluded that long prison sentences are an inefficient method of preventing crime, unless they are specifically targeted at offenders who are extremely dangerous or have a high rate of repeat offenses.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data reported in 2015, around 54% of state prison inmates have been incarcerated for violent crimes, and the remaining 46% are serving time for drug offenses, property crimes, and offenses involving public order. However, these statistics do not tell the whole story, especially in the state of Wisconsin. Many prison inmates are serving time for probation or extended supervision violations, and in many cases, revocations are based on rule violations, rather than additional criminal convictions. Sentences of probation or other alternatives to revocation are not used as much as they should be.  

Since 2008, the estimated annual cost required to house a Wisconsin prison inmate has increased from $31,806 to nearly $40,000. The state’s taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth for what is being spent on the criminal justice system. Prison inmates are not productive members of society, and they are entirely supported by tax revenues, causing increases to the state’s budget deficit. However, those who are on probation, whether it includes work release or not, pay their own costs for supervision and/or incarceration, and active employment allows them to remain productive and support their families. Obviously, reducing incarceration and increasing probation makes much more sense from both the societal and economic viewpoints.

The need for sentencing and prison reform is evident, and elected officials from both parties have recognized that something must be done about the massive expense of mass incarceration. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February of 2018, would reduce some of the harshest rules for sentencing in federal crimes, and it would provide some modest reforms to the federal justice system. In addition, the House of Representatives passed the FIRST STEP Act, its own version of a prison reform bill, in May of 2018. These bills have laid the groundwork for much-needed legislation that will allow the next Congress to begin to address the issue of prison reform.

The November mid-term elections are over, and the candidates chosen for governor and attorney general in Wisconsin are amenable to addressing the mass incarceration dilemma. During the campaign, Governor-elect Tony Evers voiced the view that Wisconsin’s current criminal justice and prison policy is ineffective and too expensive, both in the cost to taxpayers and the burden it puts on those caught up in the system. It is hoped that similar bipartisan efforts to address this crisis will occur at the state level in 2019, so that real reform can be enacted in the upcoming legislative session.

Raymond Dall’Osto practices criminal and white collar defense at the law firm of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP and served on the Board of Governors and as a public defender.


Sentencing Project, Criminal Justice Facts, https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/  


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