By Gretchen Schuldt
Wisconsin's adult incarceration rate has passed the national average, according to a new federal report.
The state locks up a larger share of its population than does any of its neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, or Iowa, according to a new federal report.
It's a significant change in status – the state has lagged behind or matched the average incarceration rate for the past several years.
The statistics are based on 2016 data, and so do not reflect the impacts of legislative changes, such as tougher drunk driving laws that are sending more people to prison.
Wisconsin jails or imprisoned 790 out of every 100,000 adults, while the nationwide average for states was 780 per 100,000, according to the report, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016."
Michael O'Hear, a Marquette University Law School professor and author of Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway, said the state's incarceration rate actually was much lower than the national average in the 1970s. That the rate rose above the national average carries symbolic weight, even though the the actual increase from the previous year was relatively small.
The state's incarceration rate in 2015 was 780 per 100,000 residents, the same as the national average. In 2014, the state locked up 770 people per 100,000, while the national average for states was 800 people per 100,000.
The figures include people aged 18 years and older in prisons and local jails, according to the report, published by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The severity of crime is not the issue, O'Hear said. "The increased rate I don't think at all is dictated by the violent crime rate," he said.
Instead, he said, the increase is attributable to "thousands and thousands of decisions made by hundreds of officials all across the state." Those involved include police, prosecutors, judges, and Department of Corrections employees, he said.
The $40 per hour the state pays private lawyers to defend indigent clients also is an issue, he said. The rate is the lowest in the nation.
"Assigned counsel pay is a scandal in Wisconsin," he said. "Forty dollars an hour is just not a figure that will work for an experienced, competent attorney."
With so many players involved, O'Hear said, it is not so easy to answer the question "How do you deal with this?"
The figures indicate the state has decided to rely on imprisonment, but there are other things it could do, such as increase funding for treatment and diversion programs, he said.
Expanding compassionate release to allow sick and elderly inmates out of prison also would help, as would implementing good time to allow inmates to shave time off their sentences. Most states have good time programs, but Wisconsin does not, O'Hear said.
Ending the practice of sending back to prison people on probation or extended supervision who violate Department of Correction rules, but are who are not accused of new crimes would help, too.
O'Hear, asked what he would do if he could do just one thing, said he would "cut maximum sentences in half. ...They grew a lot in the last generation."
Meanwhile, the state's prisons are overcrowded and a study is underway to determine if the state should add to its inventory.
"I think they will build more," O'Hear said. "I hope they don't."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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