March 18, 2008

The State of Corrections

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Chickens coming home to roost is all I could think about when reviewing a recent report.  A few weeks ago, the Pew Center confirmed what many of us already knew: Our nation’s incarceration rate has reached epidemic proportions. 

According to the Center’s study, more than one in 100 Americans are locked up right now.  The statistics for African-Americans are especially staggering.  One in nine black men between the ages of 20 through 34 is behind bars.  African-American women are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be incarcerated as our white counterparts.

Not only must things change, they’ve got to change soon.  We cannot continue locking up residents at the pace and cost that we are currently experiencing.  We have to be smarter about how we expend the limited fiscal resources that we have.  We have to be more thoughtful about how we choose to hold residents accountable for their crimes.  And although there are those who liken any efforts to be smarter on crime with being “softer” on crime, it’s time for us to reassess our approach to corrections.

For years, now, I’ve been advocating alternative approaches to Wisconsin’s corrections problems.  With almost 23,000 people in jail or in prison in our state on any given day, our “lock em’ up and throw away the key” stance is failing.  Alternatives that are logical and cost-effective are available and utilized successfully in other states.

I, along, with the other members of the Judiciary and Corrections Committee, have heard from judges, corrections officials, lawyers, those incarcerated, community members and advocacy groups about the need to approach old corrections problems in new ways.

Drug convictions, for example, have been the number one cause of growth in our state’s prison population during the past two decades.  But instead of being proactive and tailoring our sentencing measures to the problem, we have created an overburdened and ineffective system.  Not only is that approach more costly than most alternatives, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce substance abuse or enhance public safety in the long run. 

Even in reviewing federal legislation, it is troubling that drug crimes are continually punishable after release by denying drug offenders opportunities to access important government resources.  Routinely keeping drug offenders from education or job training programs doesn’t help them become contributing citizens.  Being smart about incarceration means, among other things, supporting programming that prepares convicted drug users to return to their communities ready to make a change for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Other options, like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, should be given serious consideration.  This is a project that assists policymakers in developing population-specific solutions to corrections problems.  It’s a data-driven, fiscally sound strategy that allows us not only to reduce spending on corrections, but also increase public safety and improves the reentry process.  When it’s been tried in other states, there have been dramatic reductions in recidivism, not to mention savings of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Just look at the statistics and you’ll see, now’s the time for change in our corrections policy.