While Governor Tony Evers and Democrats are looking to reform Wisconsin’s prison system, Assembly Republican passed a handful of bills yesterday that would expand criminal penalties for juveniles, prevent violent offenders from getting off probation early, and revoke probation for people charged with crimes while on parole.
When State Representative Joe Sanfelippo, a Republican from New Berlin, announced the “Tougher on Crime” package of bills last month, he claimed crime has been rising in Wisconsin.
But, Democratic Representatives like Evan Goyke of Milwaukee say the legislation is based more on first-hand accounts of crime rather than concrete evidence of growing crime rates.
“From 2017 to 2019, crime went down 25 percent in the City of Milwaukee. [There was a] 14 percent reduction in violent crime [and] 30 percent reduction in property crime,” Goyke says.
According to the most recent statistics from the Department of Justice, the overall number of criminal offenses in the state has fallen by just over 16 percent since 2014.
Goyke also describes the package of bills as the “last gasp” of the state’s tough on crime era.
“The bills have been passed at great political cost within the Republican caucuses. Many of the bills had mixed votes where some Republicans voted ‘no’ on the bills, during the hearing process you had Republicans in deeply conservative districts asking questions about the breadth or scope of the bill, [and Republicans introduced amendments] trying to narrow the impact,” Goyke says.
“Those are small, but meaningful signs that a new ideological approach [to] criminal justice and the prison system is catching on in Wisconsin.”
According to Goyke, 45 states have passed some form of criminal justice reform in the past “several years.”
One bill passed yesterday would expand the kinds of crimes that juveniles may be incarcerated for, while another would prohibit individuals who commit violent crimes from programs that allow early release.
A third bill would mandate the Department of Corrections recommend that individuals charged with a “felony or a violent misdemeanor” while on probation should have their parole revoked.
That means these individuals would go back to prison until the charges are dismissed or they’re found not guilty of the charges.
Republican Representative Michael Schraa voted against this third bill, which would have applied to individuals charged — not convicted — of any crime in its original form.
“I am not a big fan of this bill. In this scenario, [an] individual spends ten years in prison and is given ten years extended supervision. They’re out five, six, seven years and they commit another crime in that seventh year. [It] could be [a] fairly innocuous crime [but] they actually go back to prison [and] they start from zero,” Schraa says.
Schraa also says this bill would increase Wisconsin’s prison population, which — as of 2018 — has been operating over capacity.
Democratic lawmakers criticize the Republican package for both its costs and how quickly it has moved through the legislature. Here’s Representative Mark Spreitzer of Beloit.
“We unfortunately didn’t have the fiscal estimate at the time the public hearing on this bill was held because this bill was rushed through the process,” Spreitzer says.
“It was introduced, it was quickly scheduled for a hearing, and then it was quickly scheduled for a vote. So, we asked if the authors had any idea what this bill would cost, what it would cost to house these additional people in prison, how many people would get revoked and sent back to prison, and the authors had no idea what it would cost.”
According to the Department of Corrections, the bill has an annual estimated cost of 211 million dollars.
While Republicans quickly moved Representative Sanfellipo’s package of bills through the Assembly, Sanfellipo has yet to hold a hearing on a bill that would prevent a future backlog of sexual assault kits as the chair of the Assembly Committee on Health.
Representative Goyke says Sanfellipo’s actions are “inconsistent.”
“If [Sanfellipo] were real and genuine in his desire to be tough on crime, he would have passed a bill that holds rapists accountable through ensuring no backlog of the critical evidence of that crime from being tested and the perpetrator being detected, arrested, and being held accountable,” Goyke says.
Tomorrow, the Assembly Committee on Corrections will hold a public hearing on two bills introduced by Representative Goyke that he says will reduce Wisconsin’s prison population.
The Republican bills now go to the State Senate.