Crime can continue to go down in Milwaukee and spending on criminal justice can be controlled successfully, but only if steps are taken to give local judges, prosecutors, police and others involved in criminal justice tools, incentives and support in doing so, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in a speech Friday at Marquette University Law School.
In what he described as a major policy statement, Chisholm called for modifying the state’s truth-in-sentencing law and maintaining support of programs that assess the risks and needs of people charged with crimes so that fewer end up in prison and more end up on paths that lead away from re-offending.
“Both sides of the political spectrum must acknowledge that talking tough on crime has reached its limits,” Chisholm said. “Being smart on crime is the solution.”
Chisholm said such “smarter” efforts are paying off in Milwaukee, but are in danger of being undermined by major cuts in federal anti-crime programs and in state aid to criminal justice work. In addition, the current state funding system exacerbates spending problems.
“The problem is that we operate a system that disconnects the decisions made by local law enforcement officials and the cost of our decisions,” Chisholm said. “I make this offer to the governor and legislature: Milwaukee will continue to reduce crime and reduce the numbers of people in prison, maybe even enough to justify closing a prison. In turn, we want the savings from our efforts reinvested in Milwaukee so we can continue to do what we know works best for us.”
Chisholm said the truth-in sentencing practices that became law in Wisconsin in the 1990s are effective for some criminals – those who are the most violent, generally – but are counterproductive and expensive for many others.
He said, “My proposal is to allow judges in the State of Wisconsin, based on the best evidence available at the time of disposition, the option of imposing either a determinate or indeterminate sentence. I am not calling for a repeal of truth-in-sentencing. It is an effective tool for incapacitating and controlling dangerous offenders. It is a less effective and more costly option for offenders whose behavior can be controlled at the community level. Most of the answer to why prison costs soar even when we reduce crime is found in the structure of truth-in-sentencing, so we must look at ways to keep the best aspects but modify the worst aspects of the structure.”
Chisholm said truth-in-sentencing “backloads services to the time shortly before release, creating greater likelihood that supervision in the community will fail.” The previous system of indeterminate sentencing allowed corrections officials to prioritize resources for re-entry to the community based on parole eligibility at 25% of the maximum sentence, and provided incentives for actors under supervision to participate in programming early in a sentence.
Without supporting efforts such as the “evidence based” programs that assess what is the best long-term solution for offenders, Chisholm said, the financial pressures on the local and state criminal justice systems will build to a point where much less attractive options, such as releasing large numbers of prisoners without preparing them for life after incarceration, will be necessary.
Chisholm said, “Milwaukee’s recent experience offers a roadmap to success. We can protect the public, address the impact of neighborhood crime and do so in a way that ultimately reduces the prison population, increases local accountability for corrections spending and does so without raising taxes. . . .
“We must adopt a business model for the criminal justice system that gives local law enforcement incentives to reduce crime and incarceration without undermining the core constitutional principles that are the foundation of that system. We must talk honestly about the cost of effective justice or we limit our options until we have no options.”
He cited figures on the continuing escalation in the budget of the state Department of Corrections, which is the fourth-largest category of spending of general state revenues. The increases come despite declining crime, he said.
Chisholm said, “The historic funding mechanism in Wisconsin gives an unlimited number of prison beds to the courts, but the courts and the community have no ability to access state funds to develop effective local responses.” He backed a proposed Community Justice Reinvestment Act that would establish “a new partnership between the state and counties to finance evidence-based community services that reduce reliance upon state correctional facilities.”
“The current cost per inmate per year in the state correctional system is approximately $30,000,” Chisholm said. “This proposal suggests that participating counties would receive $15,000 for every fewer inmate sent to prison. The state would retain the other $15,000 for either DOC (Department of Corrections) services or for funding non-DOC programs. Imagine what could be done with the resources if we reduced admissions from Milwaukee by 500 to 1,000 in a year.”
He concluded, “I am not asking for tax increases or additional expenditures. I am asking to earn the right to control a portion of existing safety dollars by proving we can do a better job of keeping people safe and preventing repeat offenses by wisely using local resources in partnership with the state.”
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, one of about 150 people in the audience at Eckstein Hall, told Chisholm during a question-and-answer period after the speech, “I totally endorse where you’re coming from on this, but there are storm clouds on the horizon.”
Flynn said proposed cuts in federal aid could eliminate or sharply reduce some of the program Chisholm was backing. He asked if Chisholm would go with him to lobby Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican from Janesville who heads the budget committee for the House of Representatives, to continue at least some of the funding for such programs.
In agreeing to join Flynn, Chisholm said the district attorney’s office faces the loss of many prosecutors because of likely federal and state aid cuts. “We’re making a difference now. . . but it’s at risk,” he said.