Transfer control over prisons from state to localities
By JERRY HANCOCK and STEVE HURLEY; Posted: Dec. 23, 2006
Public safety begins on the streets of Milwaukee and all the other communities around the state, not inside Wisconsin's prisons.In 2004, the last year figures were available, Milwaukee County sent 3,525 people to the state prison system at a cost to the state of more than $100 million.If that money were instead made available to Milwaukee County to spend on an effective program of public protection and community-based treatment, experience in Wisconsin and other states suggests that the prison population would decrease dramatically and that public safety would increase.
The expense, ineffectiveness and injustice of the current system are well-known. The effectiveness of local treatment options is proven. All that is lacking is the political will to give counties the resources they need to make the local decisions about which offenders should be sent to prison and which could be more effectively treated in the communities where they live, work, have supportive families and to which they eventually will return. In 2007, Wisconsin will spend nearly a billion dollars on prisons. Next to public education, it is the single largest expenditure in the state's budget and is increasing every year.
The prison population in Wisconsin has increased 300% in the past 15 years; in spite of a massive building program, the prison system operates at 120% of capacity. It is likely that given current policies, the system will continue to increase at the rate of 500 inmates every year. That means building, staffing and operating a new 1,000 bed prison every two years.
Continuing overcrowding has meant more money spent on security within the walls and less money for treatment and education. It is no surprise that the largest source of admissions to the prison system is people who have failed and, unless something changes, will continue to fail after being released from prison.
Current policies have created a prison system that is not only incredibly expensive and ineffective but also incredibly unjust. Many prisoners spend long periods of time with their assigned cell mate, an open toilet and no programming in a cell designed 100 years ago to house one person.Current polices have created a prison population that is disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.
The current system of Wisconsin prisons is an expensive, unjust failure with shameful racial disparities.
But there are other ways to provide public protection and operate an effective prison system. For example, the crime rate and the rate of violent crime in Minnesota and Wisconsin are essentially the same. But the prison population in Minnesota is only one-third that of the prison population of Wisconsin.
The key to the Minnesota success is not how much money is spent to protect the public but where the money is spent.In Wisconsin, the money is allocated for bricks and mortar to build prisons. In Minnesota, the money is spent on effective community programs. In Minnesota, if a prisoner is sent to a state prison, the sentencing county pays the cost of keeping the person in prison. In Wisconsin, that same cost is paid by the state.Wisconsin's current system creates an appalling economic incentive to unload the cost of public protection onto the state. Experience in Wisconsin and in other states has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that local treatment of prisoners is not only cost effective but, more important, consistent with public protection.The money the state currently spends on prisons should be returned to the counties.
Under a program similar to the one currently used to deal with juvenile offenders in Wisconsin, Milwaukee County would receive $100 million to spend either for sending people to prison or treating them locally. If the effective local treatment proves to be less expensive than the $30,000 currently required each year for each prison inmate, Milwaukee County would keep the difference. This would give Milwaukee County a great incentive to provide local treatment, rather than expecting the state to cover the costs. Under this formula, Dane County would receive over $18 million ; Racine County, $15 million ; Kenosha County, $14 million ; Waukesha County, $11 million ; and Brown County and Rock County, $8 million each.Local control of the resources necessary to protect communities across Wisconsin is the key to greater public safety, saving money and greater justice. Local communities know better how to deal with crime and punishment issues than the Department of Corrections in Madison.
The billion dollars a year that is currently spent by state government to maintain the prison system must be returned to local control. It has worked in other states, and it will work in Wisconsin.Rev. Jerry Hancock is the director of The Prison Ministry Project of the United Church of Christ, a former administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Justice and a former Dane County assistant district attorney. Steve Hurley is a criminal defense lawyer in the Madison law firm of Hurley, Burish & Stanton SC.