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.”

I was sufficiently intrigued and surprised by the latter finding that I thought it would be a good idea to ask the question again in 2013, and the results were almost identical: 54.5% supported the possibility of halfway release for prisoners who no longer posed a threat.  (A detailed analysis of the 2012 and 2013 results is available in this paper.)

Halfway release would reintroduce an awful lot of indeterminacy into Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing system.  I wondered whether there would be even higher levels of support for a more modest reform.

Yes, it turns out.

This year, the Poll asked, “If a prisoner serves two-thirds of his term, [should he] be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society?”  Two out of every three respondents (66.4%) agreed with this proposition.

The symmetry makes the finding easy to remember: two-thirds of Wisconsinites are amenable to release at the two-thirds mark.

Other results from this month’s Poll help to illuminate this finding.  Respondents were asked to assess the importance of five different objectives for the criminal-justice system.  Number one in importance was “making Wisconsin a safer place to live,” which was characterized as “very important” or “absolutely essential” by a whopping 91.6% of respondents.  This emphasis on safety helps to explain why two-thirds of respondents were comfortable with the idea of releasing inmates who do not present a safety threat.  Of course, holding low-risk inmates in expensive prison cells not only fails to advance the public-safety goal, but can actually undermine it — when we expend our limited criminal-justice resources on low-risk offenders, those resources are taken away from what is available to deal with more serious threats.

The Poll also revealed a very high level of support for “rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society.”  Nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of respondents called this a “very important” or “absolutely essential” goal for the criminal-justice system.  Implicit in this result are the beliefs that offenders can be rehabilitated and that the system should try to facilitate such positive change.  Release flexibility follows naturally from these views: early release may be the most powerful way that the system can encourage and recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments.

Finally, the Poll also indicated there is majority support for “reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals.”  Although this was not as overwhelmingly popular as increasing safety and facilitating rehabilitation, 51.2% of respondents still characterized the goal as “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  And, again, the result seems to shed some light on why so many Wisconsinites would favor moving inmates from expensive prison cells to less costly forms of punishment in the community.

The Poll did not ask about truth in sentencing per se this year, and I suspect it remains popular (63% support in 2012 and 66% in 2013).  But support for truth in sentencing does not necessarily mean that one has to go all the way to Wisconsin’s rigid extreme.  Dozens of other states adopted truth-in-sentencing laws in the 1990s, but most or all preserved more flexibility than Wisconsin.  Determinacy has its virtues, but these virtues should be balanced with the virtues of flexibility, which can make possible the use of scarce criminal-justice resources in ways that more effectively advance safety and rehabilitation goals.