By Alexandria Staubach
Legislation in reaction to disposal of a Bible could expand the amount of property incarcerated people may keep, but an administrative rule change might be better.
Senate Bill 21 would increase the maximum permissible value of an incarcerated person’s general property from $75 to $150. The bill does not increase the permissible value of electronics, which is set at $350.
The bill’s backstory features a Wisconsin prison’s disposal of a Bible mailed to a person in custody. The Good Book’s value exceeded the $75 limit on personal goods incarcerated people are allowed to keep, so prison officials refused to let the intended recipient have it.
SB 21 passed the Senate in March 2023. It then passed the Assembly on Jan. 16 during an open session. The bill now heads to Gov. Tony Evers for signature.
Since introduction of the bill last winter, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections issued an emergency rule raising the value of personal property to $150 and the value of electronics to $500.
A permanent rule waits for approval in the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules, said Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) at the Assembly’s Jan. 16 floor session. Clancy highlighted that the maximum property value the bill is meant to address would be fixed by the pending permanent rule, which he described as “objectively better.”
Unlike the administrative rule change, the bill does not raise the value for electronics and will therefore decrease the values set by DOC’s emergency rule.
“If you intend to vote yes on this with the intent to make conditions better in our jails and prisons, thank you for that intent, that is not what this would do,” said Clancy.
In a letter to the Assembly Committee on Corrections, the DOC said it preferred to make changes through the administrative code “rather than statute to allow greater flexibility for any future changes that may be needed.”
Rep. Paul Tittl (R- Manitowoc), the bill’s primary sponsor, reiterated at the open session that the dollar limit is currently codified by statute and had not changed since 1994. He opined that a change in statute is the better solution.
In reference to a package of 17 bills proposed to provide significant harm reduction for those in prison, Clancy said it was “frustrating” that SB 21/AB 16 was the only one to make it through the legislative process.
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