By Ben Prostine
During a virtual listening session on December 8, Gov. Tony Evers offered two possibilities for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin: “Either we find a way to have robust criminal justice reform,” Evers said, “or we will be building a new prison.” Evers added that “building a new $600 million prison” would be “unacceptable” and “a tragedy for the state of Wisconsin.”
The People’s Budget Listening Session on Criminal Justice Reform, hosted by Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, was attended by over 250 people and included a diverse group of people working to transform the criminal justice system in Wisconsin: pastors, lawyers, educators, substance abuse counselors, former prisoners and family members of incarcerated peoples – as well as organizers from WISDOM, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), All of Us or None (AOUON), and American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin (ACLU of Wisconsin).
The listening session occurred within the context of a global pandemic that has been catastrophic for prisons around the country, including those in Wisconsin. As of December 17, the DOC has reported 19 COVID-19 related deaths, and over 9,700 positive cases in the state’s prisons. Before the pandemic, Wisconsin’s prisons were already in crisis: suicides, overcrowding, medical neglect, racist disparities and an obsolete probation system were just a few of its features.
While running for Governor in 2018, Evers voiced his support for proposals to cut the state’s prison population in half – a notable contrast to the “tough on crime” gospel of his opponent, Republican incumbent Scott Walker. During the listening session, Evers emphasized that reducing the prison population was still a “top priority,” and re-affirmed his support for criminal justice reform. “We can and should reform the system,” Evers said, “to improve outcomes, reduce disparities, lessen the reliance on the prison system and keep communities safe.” But the path forward for reform, Evers repeated throughout the night, would have to be through bipartisan legislation.
“This is an Evers Issue”: Administrative Paths to Reform
Bipartisan legislation would mean working with a Republican controlled legislature that passed a suite of “tough on crime” bills in February. “Criminal justice reform,” as signaled by the proposals of Republican leaders, means increasing penalties and spending more on punishment – rather than prevention or restorative justice. While GOP votes moved the bills through the legislature, every bill was vetoed by Evers, who stated the legislation would move Wisconsin in “the wrong direction on criminal justice reform.” The Wisconsin Department of Corrections estimated the legislation would have required the construction of two more prisons.
While Evers urged attendees to pressure Republican representatives on criminal justice reform, Sean Wilson offered his own experience as manager of ACLU-WI’s Campaign for Smart Justice: “Having these conversations with individuals on the other side of the aisle is like pulling teeth.”
Other states with GOP controlled legislatures – such as Texas and Louisiana – have passed reforms that have reduced the prison population. Wisconsin, however, has proven immune to such changes.
“They’re just not willing to work with this administration,” Wilson said during a breakout session, “which is all the more reason for the governor to exercise the authority that he does have.”
ACLU and other organizations support legislative reform – such as ending crimeless revocations and returning 17-year-olds to the juvenile system – but also advocate for administrative pathways, as well. Evers, as Governor, could utilize his executive powers and issue mass commutations to safely and significantly reduce the prison population. Reducing the prison population could also lead to the closing down of prisons – such as those in Green Bay and Waupun, two old and deteriorating facilities, and the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, a prison that mostly locks people up who have not committed crimes.
Commutations become especially relevant in the context of the pandemic. Governors in other states, including Kentucky, Washington, and New Mexico, have all ordered mass commutations to reduce the risk of COVID-19 to incarcerated populations. In March, about six months before mass outbreaks ravaged over a dozen facilities in the state, organizations such as ACLU of Wisconsin, EXPO/WISDOM, and IWOC advocated for compassionate release. Recommendations included releasing elderly prisoners, people being held for low-level and non-offenses, and anyone eligible for parole or whose sentence would end in the next six months or a year.
While the state prison population is the lowest it’s been since 2002, this is not so much the result of improved policies on the part of the Evers administration and the DOC, but instead, a few minor responses adopted at the beginning of the pandemic.
Shannon Ross echoed the calls for executive action from Evers. “This is an Evers issue,” Ross told The La Crosse Independent. “The Republicans are not going to work with him. He has to do something on his own.” Ross is the president of The Community, an organization which sends out a digital, anti-mass incarceration newsletter to over 8,000 people in Wisconsin’s prisons. Ross started the newsletter in 2014 while serving a seventeen year sentence.
Ross was still in prison when Evers was elected governor. Like most states, prisoners in Wisconsin cannot vote (and this disfranchisement often persists beyond the cell). “So many of us incarcerated people had our loved ones vote for you,” Ross directly said to Evers, “but we have not seen any activity that we know you have the power to achieve that would honor that vote.”
In response to calls for commutations, Evers responded that he understood the issue, but it was a “small piece of what criminal justice reform is about.”
Prisoners Without Crimes: Ending Extended Supervision
Following the George Floyd revolts, and the uprisings in Kenosha in August, the GOP made “law and order” a flagship issue of the election season. And while commutations from Evers would no doubt prompt State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republican representatives to beat the fear mongering drum of law and order again, a report by ACLU show no trends between decarceration during COVID-19 and increased crime rates. In fact, crime rates went down following reductions of jail populations.
The “law and order” trope may secure some votes at the ballot, but it appeals more to fear than fact, a means to consolidate political power rather than ensure public safety. Wisconsin crime rates have mostly declined for thirty years and the crime rate in 2019 was less than half of what it was in 1990. Incarceration rates, however, have only increased – leading to a prison building flurry at the end of the last century and the overcrowded, covid infected facilities of today (Southwest Wisconsin was instrumental during the state’s prison boom, adding four prisons that now warehouse nearly 3,000 prisoners).
The questions to ask may be: Whose law and whose order?
Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is haunted by “tough on crime” reforms from the late 1990s, the so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws co-authored by former Governor Scott Walker while he served on the state assembly. The legislation introduced mandatory minimum sentences, overhauled parole standards, and replaced the probation system with “extended supervision.”
Notorious for throwing people back into prison for not even committing a crime (what organizers refer to as “crimeless revocations”), extended supervision may be the most draconian legacy of this legislation. As Carl Fields, an organizer with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) said during the listening session: “Incarceration is a sentence and supervision is a sentence.”
As Fields told The La Crosse Independent, extended supervision should be acknowledged as another form of incarceration, rather than a return to free life. In 2018, over 60,000 people were under extended supervision and revocations ended up comprising 40.5% of prison admissions, according to DOC data.
Ron Schroeder, an organizer with IWOC and a former prisoner, attended the listening session and specifically spoke out against the injustices of extended supervision. “The DOC has deemed me a low risk to reoffend,” Schroeder told The La Crosse Independent. “Despite this, I was revoked twice on ‘crimeless revocations’ and have spent more time in prison on crimeless revocations than on my original initial confinement sentence.”
As the name implies, extended supervision extends the surveillance and restrictions of prison to life beyond the cell. As a post-incarceration system, it also drives recidivism, throwing people back into prison for technical violations such as missing an appointment, entering a bar, taking a job without agent approval, or the malfunctions of GPS monitoring systems. Schroeder returned to prison for three and a half years for, among other “violations,” writing his daughters (despite having no minor-related offenses that would prohibit this activity) and another two and a half year stint for paying child support. “The warrant said I lied to my agent,” Schroeder said, “that I told her I was not paying my child support when in fact I was… These abuses of power have empowered me to push for Corrections reform.”
“Public safety entails a restorative framework from beginning to end,” Carl Fields stated, which would include a probation system that provides former prisoners with “life options” rather than punitive surveillance and the threat of arbitrary imprisonment. Fields added that the state’s criminal justice system fails to serve the victims of crimes, and also those convicted of crimes – from the prison sentence to the time beyond the cell. “I’m still attached to the system,” Fields said, “still socially knocked down a peg. The system provides no proper off-ramps.”
Shannon Ross has been out of prison for two and a half months and is currently under extended supervision. While he had a support structure to transition into after leaving prison, many previously incarcerated people do not, and extended supervision fails to provide it. “Extended supervision provides no opportunity to rebuild, to re-acclimate. You’re not allowed to make any mistakes and Wisconsin has shown no interest in doing anything about it.”
What could be heard from those attending the listening session was not a call to get “tough on crime,” but what would amount to a systemic transformation of the criminal justice system, a transformation that would entail investing in people – by way of education, housing, mental health services, diversion programs and drug treatment – and not prisons. As Fields told the La Crosse Independent, public safety should not be equated with criminal justice, but instead, understood in a framework that includes all aspects of a community. Incarceration has become an alternative to ensuring “community health,” to dealing with systemic failures and truly investing in the public sphere.
With Republican leaders captive to a mass incarceration mindset and determined to keep Evers in a legislative gridlock, many activists consider the calls for bipartisan legislation an excuse, not a viable path forward. And the crisis of COVID-19 in the state’s overcrowded prisons has only exacerbated the need for bold executive actions.
As Sean Wilson asked, “What more does the governor need to hear on criminal justice reform?”
Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua.
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