Short-term thinking about Truth in Sentencing and Extended Supervision will guarantee many more budget crises long after the current one is solved.
Because it is so large, the Department of Corrections is sometimes mentioned in discussions of how to cut the state budget. The analysis is usually quite shallow, however, because unless we simply decide to let a bunch of people out of prison early it is hard to see how Corrections offers a solution to solving the state budget crisis in the next biennium.
While this statement is mostly true, it is no reason to avoid an urgent discussion about the DOC budget that could head off a future crisis. Isn’t avoiding these questions precisely how the state put itself in this budget mess in the first place?
I had the chance to become intimately aware of Wisconsin’s Corrections statistics when I served as administrator of the Division of Corrections in 1987. Wisconsin had 5,300 prisoners that year, and today we have 21,000. We had 30,000 people on probation and parole then, and today we have approximately 70,000. Wisconsin’s Corrections budget in 1987, for the same scope of authority as the department has today, was $185 million. This fiscal year we will spend $1 billion. (That $815 million difference is more than three times the size of the governor’s proposed budget cut for the UW System.)
Almost all of the felons in prison today will some day return to society. This frequent refrain is even truer now than ever before. Last year, 600,000 offenders were returned from American prisons to communities throughout the nation. In Wisconsin, 7,000 felons were returned to society. Because our intake into the prison system was 8,000, we netted 1,000 new prisoners in just one, deficit-building year.
Roughly 5,000 offenders were sentenced to probation for felonies and returned to Wisconsin communities last year. All together then, 12,000 felony offenders were returned to Wisconsin communities from either the courts or prison.
In addition to the obvious costs of incarcerating more people are the hidden costs of supervising more people for longer periods of time. Of those 8,000 people who entered our prison system last year, 60 percent arrived because of probation or parole revocations.
In the three years since Truth in Sentencing has gone from a campaign slogan to a reality, certain trends have developed. When we put prisoners into two categories—those with sentences of three years or less and those with longer sentences—we find that the short-sentenced offenders have slightly longer sentences now than similar offenders had under the old system. The sentences are a little bit longer, and because under the old system offenders had to be released after serving two-thirds of their sentence, offenders with these short sentences will serve more than one-third more time than their counterparts under the old system.
Offenders sentenced to longer terms, meanwhile, have received substantially longer sentences under Truth in Sentencing than under the indeterminate system, and those longer sentences will entail one-third more prison time on top of the increased lengths of the sentences.
But the most important consideration where Truth in Sentencing is concerned is the one that no one seems to notice: Extended Supervision. Every prisoner under Truth in Sentencing has a second confinement period called Extended Supervision, that the offender serves in the community after his or her release from prison. This period of supervision used to be known as parole.
The early returns tell us that judges are sentencing offenders to substantially longer periods of Extended Supervision than those same offenders would have served on parole or mandatory release under the old system.
The increased supervision itself is not what is so expensive; it is the likelihood that more offenders will be sent back to prison while under Extended Supervision that makes the as-yet-unseen increased costs so alarming. For example, an offender who received a two-year prison sentence and six years of Extended Supervision would ordinarily serve two years before being released to Extended Supervision. If that person violates the terms of supervision during the six years of Extended Supervision, that offender may be returned to prison for as much as the entire six years. While requiring the offender to serve all six years for the first violation might be unusual, we must remember that because time on Extended Supervision does not vest, a person could be revoked more than once and spend a substantial period if not all of the Extended Supervision term in prison. An offender who has trouble with Extended Supervision could end up serving eight years in prison for a two-year sentence.
Truth in Sentencing is giving us a lot of what we might call “contingent liability.” We will end up paying huge sums of money for the imprisonment of people with revoked Extended Supervision if we are not more successful at their supervision in Wisconsin communities. Not only is this costly, it has the unfortunate consequence of having some offenders' final release from prison coincide with their discharge date from Extended Supervision, leaving them unsupervised in Wisconsin communities immediately upon release from prison.
That’s a hidden human cost, not just a budget nightmare. But I'll have more about the human costs of the current corrections system and how to avoid them next time, only on FightingBob.com.
February 23, 2003
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Walter Dickey is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, director of the Remington Law Center and a FightingBob.com contributing editor. He was secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections from 1983-1987.