The new issue of Marquette Lawyer magazine has an excerpt of my book Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era. The excerpt covers changes to drug sentencing in the late 1980s, which were largely motivated by concerns about cocaine, especially in its crack form. As others have observed, the harshly punitive response to the crack epidemic in the 1980s contrasts markedly with the more balanced response to the current opioid epidemic. Given the widespread perception that crack was the drug of poor urban blacks, might the different responses to the two crises be explained, at least in part, by race and class?
Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.
The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.
Here are a few additional observations:
I now have a publication date for my new book: January 17. The excessively long, but nicely descriptive, title is Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway. More information (including how to order a copy) is available through the University of Wisconsin Press. I’ll be doing a release event at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on January 17 at 7:00 p.m.
My paper on Wisconsin sentencing for Oxford Handbooks Online is now available. Apologies for the paywall. Here is the abstract:
This essay provides an overview of sentencing policies and practices in the state of Wisconsin and considers their impact on the state’s imprisonment rate. Current policies and practices are placed in historical context. Since 1980, state policy has increasingly emphasized the role of the local sentencing judge in determining punishment. Most importantly, a 1998 law ended discretionary parole, which had served as a check on the increasing severity of judge-imposed sentences. Although the state’s prison population remains near its record high of the mid-2000s, there seems little interest in adopting new restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion or otherwise restructuring the sentencing and corrections system in a fundamental way. The essay concludes by describing some more modest reforms that seem politically viable in the near term.
The final version of my article “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing'” is now available at the BYU Law Review website. Coauthored with Darren Wheelock, this article is based on research conducted through the Marquette Law School Poll. Here is the abstract:
In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors conducted public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013 and report the results here. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.
For the past four years, Darren Wheelock and I have collaborated with Charles Franklin and the Marquette Law School Poll on a series of surveys of public attitudes toward sentencing and corrections policy in Wisconsin. Our 2015 results, released last week, seem to show remarkably high levels of support for prisoner rehabilitation. Of those who were asked, more than 80% expressed support for each of the following:
- Expanding counseling programs for prisoners
- Expanding job training programs for prisoners
- Expanding educational programs for prisoners
- Helping released offenders find jobs
At the same time, there are also indications of substantial, if somewhat lower, levels of support for various punitive policies:
The new issue of the Marquette Law Review includes my paper, “Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release.” This paper expands considerably on my article on the same topic in the Wisconsin Lawyer. My full corpus on GCT is here.
As I discussed in this post, Wisconsin has achieved one of the nation’s higher rates of reduction in imprisonment over the past decade. To be sure, New York, California, and a few other states have far outpaced Wisconsin in this regard, and Wisconsin’s prison population remains nearly ten times larger than it was in the early 1970s. Still, we may appreciate some overall net progress in the Badger State’s numbers since the mid-2000s. As indicated in the following chart, reduced imprisonment of drug offenders has played a central role in driving this trend:
Over the past few months, on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve been arguing that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting good conduct time for prisoners, which provides for accelerated release based on good behavior behind bars. My writing on this topic is collected here. Earlier this week, Wisconsin Lawyer published my latest piece on GCT. I also did two short videos for Wisconsin Lawyer on GCT: here and here.
In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I have discussed the possibility of Wisconsin reinstituting “good time.” I have developed the argument for good time at much greater depth in a new article that is now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Wisconsin is one of about twenty states not offering good conduct time (GCT) to prisoners. In most states, prisoners are able to earn GCT credits toward accelerated release through good behavior. Wisconsin itself had GCT for more than a century, but eliminated it as part of a set of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s that left the state with what may be the nation’s most inflexible system for the release of prisoners. Although some of these reforms helpfully brought greater certainty to punishment, they went too far in eliminating nearly all meaningful recognition and encouragement of good behavior and rehabilitative progress. This article explains why and how Wisconsin should reinstitute GCT, drawing on social scientific research on the effects of GCT, public opinion surveys in Wisconsin and across the United States regarding sentencing policy, and an analysis of the GCT laws in place in other jurisdictions. Although the article focuses particularly on Wisconsin’s circumstances, the basic argument for GCT is more generally applicable, and much of the analysis should be of interest to policymakers in other states, too.
Entitled “Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release,” the article is forthcoming in the Marquette Law Review.