From the March-April 2017 issue of News & Letters
by Robert Taliaferro
If Wisconsin’s Tea Party Republican Governor Scott Walker has his way, in 2018 Wisconsin’s Parole Commission will be abolished and replaced with a “Director of Parole” embedded in the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) bureaucracy. According to a recent article in the Wisconsin State Journal, this restructuring would save an estimated $1.8 million over a two-year period.
Out of over 20,000 prisoners in Wisconsin’s 40 prisons and correctional centers, only about 3,000 are actually subject to discretionary parole. The remainder are confined under the state’s “Truth in Sentencing” (TIS) laws.
TIS prisoners serve a stipulated amount of time in prison and have the remainder of the sentence served in the community under supervision. They know exactly how much time they have to do and when they will be released.
Parole eligible prisoners, however, are subject to the Parole Commission, which is often driven by political processes, not rehabilitation goals. As a result, parole eligible prisoners—many in their 60s and 70s, in failing health, and with over 30 years in confinement—are subjected to the personal prejudices of state-employed parole commissioners. They do the interviews that are rubber-stamped by a politically appointed parole chairperson.
In Wisconsin there are “old law” and “new law” prisoners. Old law are prisoners who have been in the system for over 30 years, and, with the exception of the administrations of two short-lived parole chairmen over the past 40 years, few old law prisoners get paroled. Under the six years of the Walker administration, only 5% of parole eligible prisoners have been released. This amounts to about 25 people over that six-year period.
BAD PRISON FINANCES
Walker’s plan to save $1.8 million by abolishing the parole commission should be balanced against the nearly $200 million spent in the same two-year period to keep aging parole-eligible prisoners behind bars, especially when the majority of them have proven over decades that they could be released and become productive members of the community.
Walker’s plan fits neatly with the prison industrial complex’s numerous innovative ways to allegedly save taxpayers’ money on the one hand, while siphoning funds off on the other. In Wisconsin, for example, programs are forced on parole-eligible prisoners that have no tangible impact on rehabilitation, yet do impact the bottom line based on stipends paid for each prisoner taking those programs.
A prisoner does not even have to successfully complete the program for money to be doled out. On the whim of a DOC facilitator a prisoner can be terminated from the program and then be required to take it again and again until they are deemed to have completed it, with funds allocated each time.
‘REHABILITATION’ USED AS EXTORTION
Wisconsin’s current parole commissioners use those programs as extortion. Even if a program is created five years from now, if a prisoner is told to take the program, they will if they want to get out of prison or get into to a less restrictive environment.
These programs are run by the DOC. If Walker gets his way, a DOC employee with no independent oversight can dictate when they feel a prisoner is ready for parole by virtue of meeting program goals or other criteria that could—and likely would—reflect the decision-maker’s personal prejudices.
This is not to say that parole-eligible prisoners are being treated fairly now. But at least under the present system change is possible when a new governor appoints a new parole chairperson who has veto power over a parole commissioner’s decision if they feel it was improper or unfair. Under Walker’s plan this oversight would not exist, exacerbating the problems of an already broken system.
A more viable plan is to commute life sentences of old law lifers to 45-50 years. This would eliminate the need for the parole commission, as Wisconsin’s “Mandatory Release” (MR) laws would be in effect for those prisoners, many of whom have already reached the time frame that would expedite their release.
This would immediately save Wisconsin about $45 million a year and would accomplish the unacknowledged goal of retribution for the crimes prisoners committed. In the next five years the state would save millions of dollars more as others reached their MR date.
Reform is not repackaging antiquated concepts that are ill-defined; reform demands changes that do not operate in a political vacuum. Unfortunately, reform under people like Walker will never bring that kind of change.