By Gretchen Schuldt
The state's prison population will return to pre-pandemic levels as courts reopen and the Department of Corrections accepts more people convicted of crimes into the prison system, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
During the pandemic, to slow the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the state stopped accepting newly sentenced people. Instead, they sat in county jails. Now that the COVID-19 crisis is easing, the state is again accepting new inmates, LFB said in a budget paper. And in March, Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr told county sheriffs the admission backlog should be cleared within a few months.
Another factor – the Legislature's adoption of tougher laws – also contributes to more people being incarcerated, LFB said.
"Legislation from the 2019 session (which increased penalties and created additional crimes) may eventually lead to increased prison populations to the extent that offenders either serve new or longer sentences," the agency said. "No legislation was passed in the 2019 session that could cause a significant decrease in populations."
An expansion of the Earned Release Program, an early release treatment program for persons who are incarcerated with substance abuse disorders, may eventually help reduce the population somewhat, but any impact probably will not be felt for some time, it said.
LFB projected that the average daily prison population would hit 23,471 by the end of 2022-23, the same as in February, 2020, the most recent pre-pandemic population.
As of Friday, Division of Adult Institutions population was 19,377.
"While admissions to prison are increasing and COVID-19 positive cases are decreasing, the biggest lingering COVID-19 impact on the adult prison population relates to court operations," the paper said. "Case backlogs due to COVID-19, including trials and sentencing hearings, will likely take some unknown amount of time to address."
News reports indicate Dane County has a backlog of 8,000 cases; in Milwaukee County, the backlog could take up to two years to clear, the report said.
"According to the Milwaukee County DA, more than 3,000 suspects are awaiting official criminal charges...and only 60 criminal jury trials were heard in the past year, down "hundreds" from a typical year." the report said.
The state courts office reported that pending felony cases were up 35% statewide last year, LFB said.
The Joint Finance Committee, early in the budget process, eliminated several of Evers' corrections proposals that could have reduced the prison population. They included:
Excluded from eligibility would be people whose offense included: (1) a crime against life and bodily security (Chapter 940 of the statutes); (2) sexual assault of a child; (3) repeat acts of sexual assault of the same child; (4) physical abuse of a child; (5) sexual exploitation of a child; (6) trafficking of a child; (7) causing a child to view or listen to sexual activity; (8) incest with a child; (9) child enticement; (10) use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime; (11) soliciting a child for prostitution; (12) sexual assault of a child placed in substitute care; or (13) sexual assault of a child by a school staff person or a person who works or volunteers with children.
The victim(s) involved would be notified of the reduction request.
The same offenses would be excluded as would be for the earned release compliance credit.
Under current law, the total maximum sentence for a Class D felony committed on or after February 1, 2003, is 25 years – 15 years in prison and 10 years on supervised release. The governor's proposal would keep the 15-year prison maximum, but reduce to five years the maximum term of extended supervision.
"Legislation from the 2019 session (which increased penalties and created additional crimes) may eventually lead to increased prison populations to the extent that offenders either serve new or longer sentences. No legislation was passed in the 2019 session that could cause a significant decrease in populations."
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