Archive for the ‘Wisconsin Sentencing Law’ Category

Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

In 1998, Wisconsin adopted what may have been the nation’s most rigid truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole across the board and declining to put into place any alternative system of back-end release flexibility, such as credits for good behavior in prison.  Subsequent reforms to this system have been either short-lived or very modest in scope.  However, new results from the Marquette Law School Poll confirm and strengthen findings from other recent surveys that Wisconsin residents would actually welcome a more flexible system.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Law School Poll has asked Wisconsinites their views about criminal-justice policies in each of the past three summers.  Although the Poll has revealed significant support for truth in sentencing, it has also revealed comparable or even greater support for enhanced flexibility.

In 2012, Poll results included the following:  

  • 85% of respondents agreed that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
  • 67% agreed that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”
  • 55% agreed that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

(more…)

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Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

The especially high level of support for “making Wisconsin a safer place to live” was notable in light of the much smaller number of respondents (21.4%) who said that they or an immediate family member had ever been the victim of a serious crime.  This is line with results from last July’s Poll, which indicated that more than 85% of Wisconsinites feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.  Still, making the state safer remains a high priority for more than 90% of Wisconsin residents.

Respondents were separately asked how well the system was performing along five separate dimensions.   (more…)

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Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward “Truth in Sentencing”

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Preoccupied by a couple of other projects, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging.  However, I’m pleased to report that one project is now complete and posted on SSRN (available here).  Coauthored with Darren Wheelock (Marquette Department of Social and Cultural Sciences) and entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” the paper provides more in-depth analysis of the Wisconsin survey research I’ve discussed in a number of posts (e.g., here and here).  The abstract goes like this:

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.

The paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

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Truth in Sentencing and Early Release: A Follow Up

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Last week, I spoke on truth in sentencing at Marquette Law School as part of Mike Gousha’s “On the Issues” series.  My PowerPoint slides and a video of the event are available here.  Alan Borsuk summarized some of the key points in this blog post.

If you watch the video, you will see that time constraints caused me to skip over a couple of slides.  I’ll fill in those gaps here and then suggest where I would like to see Wisconsin go with early release.

First, I think one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of our polling research is that substantial numbers of Wisconsin voters say they support both truth in sentencing (“TIS”) and release from prison when an offender can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to public safety, even though these two policies are in tension with one another.  My Marquette colleague Darren Wheelock and I have been studying this “both-and” group to better understand what underlies their thinking.  Comprising more than one-quarter of our polling sample, I think of this group as the TIS swing voters — the people who support TIS, but not so strongly as to categorically rule out support for a well-designed, well-justified early release program.   (more…)

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Thoughts on Imprisonment in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Public Opinion

  • Wisconsin voters do not favor indiscriminate harshness in the treatment of criminal offenders, but rather believe that the costs and benefits of imprisonment should be carefully weighed in each case.  In the July 2013 Marquette Law School Poll,[1] a clear majority of Wisconsin voters (55.3%) expressed support for the idea that “prisons are a government spending program, and just like any other government program, they should be put to the cost-benefit test. States should analyze their prison populations and figure out if there are offenders in expensive prison cells who can be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost.”[2]
  • An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (85%) agree that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”[3]
  • An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (86%) say that they “feel safe walking alone at night” in their neighborhoods.”[4]  Although fear and outrage have sometimes dominated public discussion of criminal justice policies, Wisconsin is ready for a more balanced conversation that considers what policies will deliver the greatest benefits to the state at the least cost over the long run.

Imprisonment and Crime Trends

(more…)

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Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In 2009, Wisconsin expanded release opportunities for prisoners and established a new Earned Release Review Commission to handle the petitions.  But, just two years later, the legislature reversed course, largely repealing the 2009 reforms and abolishing the ERRC. The 2011 revisions effectively returned authority over “early” release to judges. Critics of the ERRC, an appointed body, maintained that it was more appropriate to give release authority to elected judges.

However, last month’s Marquette Law School Poll indicates that Wisconsin voters would actually prefer to put early release into the hands of a statewide commission of experts rather than the original sentencing judge.

Among the 713 randomly selected Wisconsin voters who participated, a 52% majority stated that release decisions should be made by a commission of experts, as opposed to only about 31% who favored judges. An additional 13% stated that both options were equally good. The Poll’s margin of error was 3.7%.

We asked several questions to try to identify more specifically the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both options.   (more…)

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Truth in Sentencing: We Like the Symbolism, But Have Mixed Feelings About the Practical Policy

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters support truth in sentencing, the 1998 law that abolished parole in the state and required prisoners to serve the full term of their sentences.  At the same time, a majority of Wisconsin voters (54.5 percent) agreed that once a prisoner serves half of his term, he should be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.  These seemingly inconsistent opinions point to complex, mixed feelings about sentencing policy in the state.

The numbers come from the Marquette Law School Poll, which earlier this week released the results of its latest survey of Wisconsin voters regarding politics and public policy.  This edition of the poll included a rich array of questions relating to truth in sentencing.  (Full disclosure: I collaborated in the design of these questions with Poll Director Charles Franklin and Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department.)

The poll results this year were remarkably consistent with results from a year ago, when some of the same questions were posed.  Last July, 63% supported truth in sentencing, while 55% supported release opportunities at the half-way mark.  An even more decisive two-thirds majority supported awarding credits toward early release to recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments, which also violates truth in sentencing (at least in the particularly hard-line way in which it was adopted in Wisconsin).

What gives?

(more…)

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Imprisonment Trends in the Heartland

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

A draft of my new article, “Mass Incarceration in the Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends,” is now available on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

This Article considers how the mass incarceration story has played out over the past forty years in three medium-sized Midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The three stories are similar in many respects, but notable differences are also apparent. For instance, Minnesota’s imprisonment rate is less than half that of the other two states, while Indiana imprisons more than twice as many drug offenders as either of its peers. The Article seeks to unpack these and other imprisonment trends and to relate them to crime and arrest data over time, focusing particularly on the relative importance of violent crime and drug enforcement as drivers of imprisonment growth.

The article builds on my series of “Tale of Three States” blog posts from about a year ago.  It will appear in print later this year in a symposium issue of the Valparaiso Law Review.

 

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Wisconsin Prisoners, c. 1960

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

As part of my ongoing research into the origins of mass incarceration, I’ve been spending some time recently with a voluminous, fifty-year-old government report by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Characteristics of State Prisoners, 1960.  This was a once-a-decade production by the BOP in those days, and it contains a wealth of information.

I find it fascinating to have this window into 1960, for at that time — unbeknownst to the report’s authors, of course — everything in American criminal justice was just about to change forever.  In fact, crime was already on the rise in the Northeast United States, foreshadowing a nationwide swell of violence that would continue to gather force until well into the 1970′s.  Even today, we have yet to return to the historically low levels of criminal violence of the mid-twentieth century.  And then, on the heels of the crime wave, came the great imprisonment boom — a period of unprecedented growth in American incarceration that began in about 1975 and continued uninterrupted for more than three decades.

Yes, it is easy to imagine 1960 as a more innocent time!

Using the state breakdowns from the 1960 report, I’ve drawn some comparisons between the Wisconsin prison population of then and now:   (more…)

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Is Wisconsin Ready for Another Sentencing Commission?

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Wisconsin has already had two sentencing commissions, now both defunct.  Is it time to think about a third?  Sentencing commissions have proven their worth over the long haul in a number of other states, including Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia.  A successful sentencing commission promulgates guidelines that channel judicial sentencing discretion and reduce sentencing disparities, collects and analyzes sentencing data in order to support evidence-based decision making, and provides information and recommendations to the legislature than can help to blunt some of the political system’s tendencies to excessive harshness.  Although it is certainly not cost-free, a good commission may ultimately save the state far more than is required to fund its operations.

With these considerations in mind, the latest edition of the Marquette University Law School Poll asked respondents their views of commissions and of judicial sentencing discretion.  (For my earlier posts on the Poll, see here and here.)  The results indicate that there is substantial support for a commission, but that Wisconsinites also appreciate what their locally elected judges bring to the table as sentencers.   (more…)

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