Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

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

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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“Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States”–Final Version

The Valparaiso University Law Review has now posted the final version of my article “Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends.”  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.

This paper was part of an interesting symposium issue on mass incarceration and the drug war.

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Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward “Truth in Sentencing”

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

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 the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   (more…)

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New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

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Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

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

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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If You Build It . . . .

The paths followed by crime and incarceration in the United States have been mirror images of one another over the past two decades.  This can be clearly seen in the graph below, which I prepared for an upcoming conference presentation.

crime and imprisonment

The graph depicts year-by-year rates of imprisonment, homicide, and violent crime (the latter based on results from the National Crime Victimization Survey), indexed to 1992 rates. The mirroring effect is most pronounced if you compare imprisonment (green line) with homicide (red): between 1993 and 1999, imprisonment goes up at almost precisely the same rate that homicide goes down; in 2000, there is an abrupt leveling off in both areas; and neither has seen a lot of change since.  The violent victimization line (blue) mostly tracks the homicide line, save for an additional three years of rapid decline (1999-2002) and a notable uptick between 2009 and 2011.

The mirror-image paths might seem counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t less crime translate into less imprisonment?  Let me suggest three theories to account for what has happened.   (more…)

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