August 5, 2008

Corrections

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

2008 is supposed to be a good year for Democrats.  Around the country and here in Wisconsin, poll after poll shows most citizens are fed up with Republican mismanagement.  Whether it’s the Iraq War or the national economy, Democrats score higher with the public on the vast majority of issues.

Still, there are some areas where Republicans maintain an electoral edge.  One of the biggest involves justice and corrections.  At the national and state levels, studies repeatedly show that the public thinks Republicans are better-equipped than Democrats to handle rising crime rates. 

As a Democrat, I’ve never understood why Republicans are considered to be the experts at dealing with crime.  Historically, most Republican anti-crime initiatives have failed.  For example, it’s been almost four decades since Richard Nixon announced the War on Drugs, but drug use continues to be a major problem in our communities. 

Republicans in Wisconsin have taken a “tough” approach to crime by enhancing penalties, building more prisons, and reducing parole eligibility.  The focus on locking people away hasn’t markedly reduced crime rates.  But it has sent corrections spending through the stratosphere and made Wisconsin one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to racial disparities in sentencing.  Most of all, by completely ignoring the rehabilitative component of our corrections system, Republicans haven’t done anything to curb recidivism.

Clearly, then, a new approach is needed.  As a Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, and Housing, I’m committed not just to being “tough” on crime, but being “smart” on crime, too.  That means going beyond lock-‘em-up politics and looking at the evidence on what works.  It means applying data-driven policies and considering ways to get at the underlying causes of criminal behavior.  Most of all, it means making reentry—the process through which inmates return to society—a priority in our overall corrections strategy.

The data shows that effective reentry programs reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars.  They also ensure that inmates come out of prison with the social and professional skills necessary to contribute to society.  Models of successful reentry practices are in place all around the country, including here in Wisconsin.  Rock County’s drug court, for instance, operates at a much lower cost than prison and is generally better at preventing repeat offenses.  It’s one of many alternatives to incarceration that are worth considering as we move forward.

A reentry-oriented approach is certainly different from the Republican strategies of the past.  A look at the statistics, though, shows that a break from the past might not be such a bad thing.  As an examplee, we’re currently spending more money to incarcerate our young people than we are to educate them.  If that’s not a cry for change, I don’t know what is.