March 10, 2016

Reducing recidivism

By: Sen. Lena C. Taylor

A budget is a ranking of priorities.

Think about. You probably spend most of your money on your house or your apartment. Then comes putting food on your table and maybe transportation to and from work.

State government is no different. As a member of the state budget committee, I’m a huge thorn in the neck of Republicans because I speak the truth.

The truth is, we spend way too much money on the Department of Corrections. Period.

Did you know that over the next two years, we will spend more than $2.2 billion in taxpayer dollars to fund the DOC? That’s billion with a B! Check out our four most expensive state agencies:

            Department of Public Instruction ….….…$11.354 billion

            Department of Health Services……...…… $7.389 billion

            Department of Corrections ………….....……..$2.2 billion

            UW System ………………………....………..$2.038 billion

Don’t you think it’s wrong that we put incarcerating our people ahead of educating our college students? Yup. That’s Wisconsin’s priority and our priorities are messed up.

Of course, when people do really bad things, they must be punished. But did you know that 30.1% of Wisconsin inmates end up back behind bars within three years after getting out of prison? It costs about $30,000 to incarcerate someone for one year. So, the two best ways to reduce our Corrections budget is to stop incarcerating people or to stop re-incarcerating people.

I’m still fighting with Republicans on Wisconsin’s highest incarceration rate of black men in the nation. But what about when people end up back in prison after they get out? To me, that’s a failure both on their part, but on our part too. The state has to own a part of the responsibility for the people that come out of prison.

Re-entry isn’t an easy process. When you’ve been behind bars, things change. Telephones that used to be on the wall are now in your pocket. Cars come with backup cameras. Televisions are now connected to the internet. Computers are in almost every job site. And we just expect people to adapt. It’s not easy and some people slip up.

When people reoffend, often the punishment is longer. At $30,000 per year, that costs the rest of us a lot of money. That’s money that could be better spent on education, public safety or economic development for our neighborhoods. So, what can we do?

March 15th is the last day the State Senate will be in session. That means we have one last chance to do the right thing and reduce recidivism. A person is 3 times more likely to end up back behind bars if they can’t hold a job for one year than someone who does. That’s why we must address employment. I have found felons are great workers because they truly know the value of getting another chance. But I’ve also talked to far too many employers that are scared to hire felons. The state needs to step in and help. We just have to. The cost of inaction is simply too high. We can’t waste any more money putting people back behind bars.

A new bill I authored with Republican Senator Alberta Darling and Democratic Senator Nikiya Harris Dodd will create a certificate for qualified employment for prisoners upon reentry. The certificate will vouch for the person’s work ethic that they displayed while in prison. It is our hope that this certificate will help felons in their job searches. The bill has already passed the Assembly and the Senate Judiciary Committee. I hope the Senate will pass the bill when we meet on March 15th.

While I’m working for this one bill, I want you to know it could be better. I hope this next legislative session, we will take this effort to the next step of certifying people in specific skills to further help partner workers with employers. I will also keep working on Ban the Box legislation that far too often prevents felons from even getting an interview. Finally, I encourage you to sign up for my email list and my social media to stay informed of the work I’m doing with Clean Slate Milwaukee to improve the reentry process.

There’s a better way. Together, we can each do our part to improve our community, one person at a time.

To join Senator Taylor in her Legislative efforts, stay in the loop at Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor, Twitter.com/SenTaylor, Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor or join her email list by emailing Sen.Taylor@legis.wi.gov.