Friday, April 15, 2011

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WI Prison Population on the Decline After 150 Years

January 5th, 2011
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Rick Raemisch, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of CorrectionsAfter more than 150 years of persistent increases, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections is reporting a sustained decline in the state’s prison population. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, the population fell about 7 percent, the largest decline in state history. Experts say court diversion programs, declining crime rates and the state’s focus on preventing recidivism are responsible for the reductions. Story from the Milwaukee Magazine.
On June 30, at the end of fiscal year 2010, the department reported earlier this week, there were 22,171 inmates in the state’s prisons, up from 22,008 at the end of fiscal year 2009. But this slight increase followed three years of consecutive declines in fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009, a first since the state’s first correctional facility opened in Waupun in 1851. All told, the population has dropped from 23,797 in 2007 to 22,171 in 2010.
The state’s prison population grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. Then, in the first five years of the 21st Century, the growth slowed. In the five years that followed, between fiscal years 2005 and 2010, the population appears to have crested.
“It’s not like it’s dropping off a cliff,” says Kenneth Streit, an associate professor of law at UW-Madison and an expert on corrections in the state. “But I’m certainly heartened by the fact it’s coming down.”
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for prisons (including federal prisons) was 74 percent of the national average in 2004. But Streit says that if one includes both prison and county jail inmates, the state ranks relatively high.
“We’re reducing (the state prison population) from a fairly high number,” Streit says.
Crime has declined in Wisconsin, as in the rest of the country, in the past several years, according to Streit, meaning courts are sending fewer offenders to the state for incarceration. Efforts in Wisconsin and around the country are also mounting to find alternatives for non-violent offenders.
The previous philosophy, Streit says, was to give prisoners “a long sentence and if that doesn’t work, give them a longer one. We’re sort of winding our way out of those sentences.”
Rick Raemisch, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, agrees. “There are people that should be in prison, and there’s no question about it. But for the people who are nonviolent, the stakeholders are really starting to look at different alternatives.”
He adds, “We take a hard line with sex offenders for obvious reasons. But with others, we look at what we can do that will turn this individual around.”
Streit says that in recent years, the DOC has moved away from a “zero tolerance” approach to probation violations. Instead of automatically sending the person back to a correctional facility, he says, they may spend a short time in county jail, a strategy aided by a new state law that raised the limit on how long a DOC offender on probation can be jailed in a county facility for such a violation.
Streit and William Pelfrey, an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Milwaukee, say court diversion programs are becoming increasingly popular in Wisconsin and are also helping to hold down the state’s prison populations. The programs, which include drug courts, where drug offenders undergo treatment and are given a chance to reform before they are imprisoned, have been relatively slow to take hold in Milwaukee County, according to Pelfrey.
The Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court began accepting defendants in 2008. Pelfrey says judges in the county and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm have pushed for diversion programs and more “community corrections” options that allow offenders to serve their sentences on work release or home detention (with electronic monitoring).
Raemisch says he’s seen support for such approached statewide. “There are a large number of innovative sheriffs in Wisconsin, and you find a lot of innovative release programs,” he says.
He also credits the state’s focus on reentry programs for reducing recidivism. The focus needs to be on drug and alcohol treatment, education and job skills, he says. “There’s really no secret to turning these individuals around.”
The state also began an early-release program in January for nonviolent offenders nearing the ends of their sentences. Some Milwaukee leaders, including Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn, objected to it, saying that many of these offenders would wind up back on the city’s streets to commit more crimes.
Pelfrey says the era of long sentences for nonviolent offenders appears to be coming to a close, and prison populations are declining as a result. “The perception is that people who go to prison are dangerous, violent offenders, but that’s the exception, not the rule,” he says. Most committed property offenses (such as theft or burglary) to make money for illegal drugs.
States are also beginning to realize how expensive such policies can be. “The financial toll on states is phenomenal,” according to Pelfrey.
Raemisch says the department commissioned a study that, in 2008, recommended the department find ways to curb the flow of inmates into its prisons. The continuation of the status quo, the study found, would cost the state $1.2 billion by 2018.
“That was a roadmap of where we don’t want to be,” he says. Raemisch says that status quo is already changing, and the state is avoiding the increases in prisoners the study warned would be so costly.
Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, says the reductions in the state prison population may be due to changing demographics: There are now fewer males between the ages of 16 and 25, and consequently fewer crimes being committed.
NewsBuzz has also covered a similar decline in juvenile incarcerations in the state. Read the story here. In crafting a new state budget next year, Gov. Scott Walker could choose to close one of the state’s boys’ schools, possibly the one in Wales in Waukesha County. Raemisch says he recommended to the new administration that it close one of the facilities but says he didn’t specify which one.

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