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Prison Walls

Will Wisconsin follow a federal lead on reducing sentences?

Federal officials announced this week that they will seek to curtail the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for certain offenses. Wisconsin, which incarcerates a greater share of its population than many of its neighboring states, could reduce corrections costs by following the federal move to reduce sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Holder announced several new policies aimed at curbing soaring prison costs at the federal level, and correcting unfairness in the justice system. One of the most significant changes will be to scale back the use of federal laws that impose strict mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. Holder said that widespread incarceration is “ineffective and unsustainable” and “imposes a significant economic burden.”

The changes in federal policy would not affect sentencing at the state level, which is where most incarceration takes place. But by moving away from mandatory minimum sentences, the federal government may be setting an example for states to follow. Wisconsin, which has high correction costs and incarceration rates, should consider following in the federal government’s footsteps to reduce sentences. Doing so could reduce corrections spending, possibly significantly.

Consider this evidence of the high cost of incarceration in Wisconsin:

  1. Wisconsin’s correction costs are higher than the national average. Just eight states have higher corrections costs at the state and local level when measured as a percent of personal income. Wisconsin’s corrections costs as a share of income are 20% higher than the national average, according to information on state and local government finances from the U.S. Census Bureau, and 85% higher than correction costs in Minnesota, which is demographically similar to Wisconsin. If Wisconsin’s corrections costs took up the same share of personal income as Minnesota’s corrections, state and local governments in Wisconsin would save $707 million each year.
  2. Wisconsin incarcerates a greater share of its population than many neighboring states. Although Wisconsin’s incarceration rate is lower than the national average, it is nearly twice that of Minnesota’s, and 20% higher than that of Iowa’s. Wisconsin also has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country.
  3. An increasing share of scarce resources is being spent on corrections. Between 1997 and 2012, state spending on corrections grew by more than 50%, taking inflation into account. In 1997, corrections spending took up 1 out of every 18 dollars in General Purpose Revenue (GPR) spending, an amount that had grown to 1 out of every 12 dollars by 2012.

One group that has been working to draw attention to high costs of Wisconsin’s prison policies is 11X15, which draws its name from the goal of reducing Wisconsin’s prison population by half – to 11,000 – by 2015. 11X15 works to highlight the high costs of Wisconsin’s incarceration policies, both personal and fiscal, and brings together faith communities to work towards criminal justice reform.

So far in Wisconsin, lawmakers haven’t shown much inclination to take a hard look at reforming sentencing guidelines. But perhaps the action that is being taken at the federal level will have an eventual effect on how Wisconsin sentences offenders to prison, and for how long. Wisconsin’s high corrections costs should be among the factors motivating us to search for better solutions.

Tamarine Cornelius

Photo by Alison Groves released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.