“Good Time” in Washington: A Model for Wisconsin?

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In an earlier post, I argued that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting “good time” for prisoners, that is, credits toward accelerated release that can be earned based on good behavior.  An established program that Wisconsin might emulate is Washington’s.

Washington has long been regarded as a national leader in criminal justice.  Indeed, Wisconsin has previously borrowed from other Washington innovations, such as its “three strikes and you are out” law and its civil commitment program for sexually violent offenders.  Washington’s good-time law takes a balanced, moderate approach.  It is neither among the most generous nor the most stringent in the nation.

Notably, Washington’s recidivism rate has been consistently lower than both the national average and Wisconsin’s.  Although many factors contribute to a state’s recidivism rate, some research suggests that the incentives established by a well-designed good-time program may help to reduce repeat offending.

With the rules set forth here, the Washington program works like this:   Read more »

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Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?

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Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not recognize prisoners’ good behavior with credits toward accelerated release.  Wisconsin had such a “good time” program for well over a century, but eliminated it as part of the policy changes in the 1980s and 1990s that collectively left the state unusually — perhaps even uniquely — inflexible in its terms of imprisonment.  I’ve been researching the history of good time in Wisconsin in connection with a forthcoming law review article.

Wisconsin adopted its first good time law in 1860, which placed it among the first states to embrace this new device for improving prison discipline.  Twenty years later, in 1880, the Legislature expanded good time and restructured the program in the form it would retain for about a century.  In the first year of imprisonment, an inmate could earn one month of credit for good behavior; in the second, two months; in the third, three; and so forth.  Credits maxed out at six months per year.   A model prisoner with a ten-year term, for instance, might earn enough credits to knock off nearly three years from the time served.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, good time has had a distinct history, structure, and purpose from parole.   Read more »

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Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

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In 1998, Wisconsin adopted what may have been the nation’s most rigid truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole across the board and declining to put into place any alternative system of back-end release flexibility, such as credits for good behavior in prison.  Subsequent reforms to this system have been either short-lived or very modest in scope.  However, new results from the Marquette Law School Poll confirm and strengthen findings from other recent surveys that Wisconsin residents would actually welcome a more flexible system.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Law School Poll has asked Wisconsinites their views about criminal-justice policies in each of the past three summers.  Although the Poll has revealed significant support for truth in sentencing, it has also revealed comparable or even greater support for enhanced flexibility.

In 2012, Poll results included the following:  

  • 85% of respondents agreed that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
  • 67% agreed that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”
  • 55% agreed that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

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Wisconsinites Give Criminal-Justice System Low Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Marquette Law School, Public, Race & Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

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Violence in the Heartland, Part V: Wisconsin’s Cities

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Since 1985, Wisconsin’s seven largest cities have followed markedly different paths in their rates of reported violent crime.  Two, Waukesha and Appleton, have consistently had lower rates than the state as a whole, while two others, Milwaukee and Racine, have typically had rates that are two to three times higher than the state as a whole.  Kenosha and Racine have significantly reduced their rates of violence since the 1980s, while the other five cities have experienced sizable net increases.

Here are the overall trends, in the form of reported violent crimes per 100,000 city residents:

Cities year by year

In recent years, as you can see, Waukesha has easily had the lowest rates and Milwaukee the highest.  Earlier, Appleton used to compete with some success for lowest and Racine for highest.

Here are the net changes in the cities’ crime rates from 1985-1987 to 2010-2012:   Read more »

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Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward Truth in Sentencing

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I’ve posted a number of times about the interesting results of the Marquette Law School Poll regarding the attitudes of Wisconsin voters toward truth in sentencing and early release from prison (e.g., here and here).  I’ve now finished a more in-depth analysis of the survey data with Professor Darren Wheelock of Marquette’s Department of Social and Cultural Sciences.  Our results are discussed in a new paper on SSRN (available here).  The abstract sets forth a little more of the context and key findings:

In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors analyzed the results of public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.

Entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” our paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

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Violence in the Heartland, Part III: City Trends

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In earlier posts (here and here), I have explored state-level violence trends since 1960 in the seven midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  This post focuses on the data from the largest city of each of these states.  Since Chicago does not report its rape numbers in conformity with FBI standards, it is omitted from the analysis.

Here are the city trends since 1985 (reported violent crimes per 100,000 residents):

city data

What stands out most is the very wide, persistent gap between Detroit at the top of the chart and Des Moines at the bottom.   Read more »

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“The Past Is a Foreign Country” — Or Is It?

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dean bookI’ve recently finished reading Dean Strang’s fascinating new book, “Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror.”  The book recounts the story of a once-famous (or infamous) criminal case that was tried in Milwaukee nearly a century ago.  The case arose from a short, armed skirmish between police and residents of Milwaukee’s largely Italian, working-class Bay View neighborhood in September 1917. In the wake of that violence, police indiscriminately arrested dozens of Italian immigrants, ultimately resulting in the trial of eleven suspected anarchists in November 1917 on charges of assault with intent to murder.

America’s recent entry into the First World War had already created a public atmosphere that was hardly favorable to immigrants and political dissidents, but a terrible local tragedy may have wiped out any remaining hope that the defendants would receive a fair trial.  Just days before the jury was selected, a bomb exploded in a Milwaukee police station, killing ten — America’s single greatest loss of officers in the line of duty before 9/11. Although the Bay View defendants were not formally charged with this crime — indeed, the case was never solved and no one was ever formally charged — the bombing was widely believed to be the work of the defendants’ supporters.

Little wonder that all of the defendants were convicted on a dubious conspiracy theory in a trial that reeked of pro-prosecution bias from start to finish.   Read more »

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Violence in the Heartland, 1960-2012–Part One

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Despite their geographical proximity and economic and cultural similarities, the states of the Midwest have had very different rates of violent crime over the past five decades.  Moreover, through periods of dramatic increases and decreases in violent crime, the relative positions of the states have remained fairly stable.  The low-violence states in 1960 remain at the low end today, while the high-violence states in 1960 remain at the high end today.  However, the gap between the high states and low states has been slowly diminishing for many years.  In another decade, the state that has historically had the highest rate of violence, Illinois, may conceivably fall to about the same level as the state that has historically had the lowest, Iowa.

Readers of this Blog may know that I have previously written a series of posts on crime and punishment in three midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (e.g., here and here).  With this post, I begin a new series that will explore regional trends more broadly.  With violent crime such a staple of local news coverage, I think it’s helpful to be able to place the crime du jour within a wider spatial and temporal context; perhaps this bigger-picture view may lessen the tendency to adopt hastily conceived policy responses to whatever happens to be the latest outrage.

Here are the rates of reported violent crime (per 100,000 residents) in the midwestern states and the U.S. as a whole since 1960:

Read more »

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Truth in Sentencing and Early Release: A Follow Up

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Last week, I spoke on truth in sentencing at Marquette Law School as part of Mike Gousha’s “On the Issues” series.  My PowerPoint slides and a video of the event are available here.  Alan Borsuk summarized some of the key points in this blog post.

If you watch the video, you will see that time constraints caused me to skip over a couple of slides.  I’ll fill in those gaps here and then suggest where I would like to see Wisconsin go with early release.

First, I think one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of our polling research is that many Wisconsin voters say they support both truth in sentencing (“TIS”) and release from prison when an offender can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to public safety, even though these two policies are in tension with one another.   Read more »

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Lewd and Lascivious Behavior Laws: A Milwaukee Story

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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The Accused

Lee Erickson’s bio attests to his national prominence. Among other things, he served on the Choral Panel of the National Endowment of the Arts and as dean of the American Guild of Organists. But in Milwaukee, he is best known as the conductor of the chorus of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Erickson was appointed associate director of the MSO Chorus in 1978, and he has served as the chorus’s director since 1994. By all accounts, the group has flourished under his leadership. The MSO website quotes music director Edo de Waart as saying: “The MSO has the good fortune of having a first-class volunteer chorus. With a chorus of this caliber, the options for performing great works in the repertoire are immense.” Frequent guest conductor Nicholas McGegan has called the chorus “a real gem,” and Tom Strini of the ThirdCoast Digest referred to it as “the jewel in Milwaukee’s cultural crown.”

If you type Erickson’s name into the Google search box, however, these achievements aren’t among the first results that appear on your screen.

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Alternatives to Incarceration: The Importance of Local Collaboration and Leadership

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Last week, the Audit Services Division of the Milwaukee County Office of the Comptroller released a helpful new report, “Electronic Monitoring can Achieve Substantive Savings for Milwaukee County, but Only if Pursued on a Large Scale with Satisfactory Compliance.”  Although the voluminous report particularly focuses on electronic monitoring, it also provides a wealth of background information about the recent history of our local jail, House of Correction, and alternatives to incarceration.  The report documents a rich array of new or recently reinvigorated programs that are intended to divert defendants from the jail or House of Correction, either at the pretrial stage or post-adjudication.  The report also notes widespread support for these initiatives among nearly all major stakeholders in the County’s criminal justice system, with the most significant exception being Sheriff David Clarke.

Media coverage centered on the report’s finding that home detention and electronic monitoring of larger numbers of offenders might save the County more than $2.5 million in costs at the House of Correction.  The Office of the Sheriff responded to this finding in a characteristically derisive fashion, particularly criticizing the House’s current leadership for placing drunk drivers on electronic monitoring.

Although the war of words among County officials makes good copy, I think the real story in the report is the extensive and innovative collaboration that has been occurring for the past half-dozen years between court officials, elected leaders, prosecutors, public defenders, and various other stakeholders in order to address Milwaukee’s chronic jail overcrowding and to develop cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.   Read more »

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