While truth in sentencing is highly popular with Wisconsin voters, some options that could allow prisoners to be released before serving their full sentences also have majority support, Marquette Law School Professor Michael O’Hear told an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” audience last week. Wisconsin may want to give renewed attention to such ideas in the pursuit of prison policies that are both morally appealing and fiscally wise.
O’Hear, who is associate dean for research at the Law School, summarized Wisconsin’s trends in incarceration in the last four decades, including increased prison populations, abolition of the parole board, and adoption of “truth in sentencing,” which makes a judge’s sentence close to the final word on how long a prisoner will serve. Changes that eased the truth in sentencing practices, including creation in 2009 of an Earned Release Commission, were largely reversed under Gov. Scott Walker in recent years.
The number of people in the Wisconsin prisons went from about 2,000 in 1973 to about 23,000 in 2004, O’Hear said. The total has leveled off since then. Strong political momentum to get tough on crime, including not letting prisoners out before they served their full sentences, underlay the trends, and Wisconsin’s boom in prison population was in line with what occurred in much of the nation, O’Hear said.
The Marquette Law School Poll found in 2012 and 2013 very high levels of support for truth in sentencing — around 70%, O’Hear said. But results from several rounds of polls also found high levels of support for giving prisoners second changes. “This is not a lock ’em up and throw away the key state,” he said.
For example, O’Hear said 85% of people agreed in general that a prisoner who had turned his life around should be given a second chance, and 67% agreed a prisoner should be given credit for success in rehabilitation programs.
While there is a “powerful moral resonance in truth in sentencing,” O’Hear said, there is also a moral appeal among Wisconsin voters for giving convicted criminals some fresh chances when there is sufficient evidence they have accepted responsibility for their actions and have changed.
“A properly designed early release program . . . has the potential to gain public support,” O’Hear said. There is no way to reduce the overall prison population without including programs that would allow some options for early release, he said. Given the high costs of incarceration, policy makers may give such ideas new consideration ahead, O’Hear said.
Also during the “On the Issues” program, Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, described what he found in analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Franklin looked at information about more than 3,600 males nationwide who were tracked from 1997, when they were between 13 and 17, until 2011. During that period 44% were arrested at least once, Franklin said. Being arrested and serving time were more likely among those who did not grow up in two-parent homes and those with lower levels of educational success, among other findings, Franklin said. Being arrested correlated with lower income and increased difficult finding jobs.
The full “On the Issues” session may be viewed by clicking here.