Extremist John Gard prefers runaway prison spending to a bipartisan, cost-cutting drug treatment bill.
Out of control
Senator Judy Robson
Senate Bill 518 had all the ingredients of a successful bill. It had bipartisan support in both houses. Its co-sponsors included conservatives, moderates and progressives.
The bill would reduce prisons costs, which have tripled since 1990 and sucked away tax dollars from schools, health care and long-term care.
Rather than warehousing non-violent offenders, the bill would provide drug treatment to offenders to help them overcome their addictions and become contributing members of society.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously on March 10. But in the waning days of the legislative session, one person, Assembly Speaker John Gard, blocked the bill from a vote by the Assembly.
I realize that alternatives to incarceration are not high on the right-wing agenda, but I thought that with this program, at least, the Assembly Republican leadership might deviate from that agenda in order to make use of federal funds made available through a Bush administration initiative.
Legislators cannot claim to be fiscally conservative when they waste money incarcerating offenders while less drastic, more cost-effective punishment would better serve society. Corrections spending in Wisconsin increased from just less than $300 million in the 1990-91 fiscal year to more than $900 million in the 2004-05 fiscal year, a three-fold increase. It costs an average of $26,000 a year to lock up an offender compared to an average of $7,100 for a stringent 6-9 month treatment program.
Criminals should be punished for their crimes. But prison is not always the best response for offenders whose crimes are drug-related but not violent. For many offenders, the drug addiction itself is the impetus for the crime - stealing to get money to buy drugs, for example. Take away the addiction, and you take away the motive to commit crime.
Senate Bill 518 would have created a grant program to enable counties to establish alternatives to prosecution and incarceration for criminal offenders whose crimes were related to the use or abuse or alcohol or other drugs. The programs must promote public safety, reduce prison and jail populations, reduce prosecution and incarceration costs, and reduce recidivism. Programs must meet the comprehensive needs of participants, including their mental health, employment, stable housing, and family reunification. Participants may be required to submit to electronic monitoring or a day reporting program.
The Bush administration recognizes that treatment for drug addiction works. "When tailored to the needs of the individual, addiction treatment is as effective as treatments for other illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma," says the Web site for the Bush initiative, Access to Recovery.
Access to Recovery makes available $100 million in grants of up to $15 million each for states that establish voucher programs to allow individuals to select from a range of effective, community-based treatment and recovery services. I am heartened to know that Governor Doyle's administration is applying for these funds.
In speaking against the bill, the Assembly Speaker said that someone, somewhere, someday will be upset that a drug offender is living in his or her neighborhood rather than sitting in prison. That is a ridiculous reason to oppose this bill. One person's unease with a non-violent offender living in the neighborhood should not deny treatment and alternatives to prison for thousands of offenders.
Addiction knows no class, race, gender or home address. The drug offender who might be spared prison or jail by these treatment programs could be anyone's neighbor, friend or family member. The Speaker played the not-in-my-backyard card to please his far-right base rather than allowing a vote on legislation that has the potential to rehabilitate thousands of offenders and deter additional crimes at a cost to taxpayers that is a third of the cost of warehousing them in prison.
Senate Bill 518 gained support from legislators of both parties, a rare concurrence for an innovative way to stabilize or reduce correctional spending while keeping our streets and homes safe. The Legislature had an opportunity to help counties rehabilitate offenders in community settings while protecting public safety. It is unfortunate that the Assembly leadership stood in the way.
March 23, 2004
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Judy Robson lives in Beloit and represents most of Rock County and the northwest portion of Walworth County in the Wisconsin Senate's 15th district.