By Jackie Clews Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The day after Gov. Scott Walker signs the budget, the odds of inmates leaving prison early could be diminished.
“Overall, the budget bill restores truth in sentencing,” said Linda Eggert, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “Under the governor’s budget, those decisions are placed back in the hands of the sentencing court.”
Former Gov. Jim Doyle’s created an "early release” program where some nonviolent criminals could serve the remainder of their sentence outside of prison.
The inmates can seek early release through the department's review commission. According to a September 2009 Legislative Reference Bureau memo, the changes were made to cut costs while encouraging good behavior from inmates.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he believes this method is “pennywise and pound foolish.”
Walker wants to repeal the Doyle-backed changes and require all early-release appeals to go through a judge of the sentencing court.
Walker’s 2011-13 executive budget recommendation says the intent “is to ensure public safety by eliminating early release mechanisms and restoring truth in sentencing.”
According to Eggert, if early release is repealed, inmates will need more compelling arguments for completing their sentence outside prison, such the need for addiction treatment.
Marquette County District Attorney Richard Dufour said the “modifications” under Walker’s proposal for the earned-release program would “make it clear what the program’s intent has always been,” treating those with addictions.
He said under the earned release program inmates struggling with an addiction would go to a treatment center and then be released from prison early for extended treatment.
The governor’s proposed budget would repeal certain release measures allowed in the Doyle plan, such as early discharge with extended supervision or probation.
Other mitigating factors for inmates, such as good behavior or dire health conditions, would have to be considered by the sentencing court.
“No other entity would be able to authorize an inmate’s early release,” Eggert said in an e-mail.
“The state is behaving schizophrenically,” said Guy Taylor, a senior staff attorney for the State Public Defender’s Office. “The law should be fairly static. It shouldn’t change with whatever’s trendy.”
Incarceration guidelines have shifted over the past 15 years.
Before 1997, most inmates were generally eligible for discretionary parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence. A parole commission would parole inmates by their “mandatory release date.”
But in 1997, Gov. Tommy Thompson signed Wisconsin's “truth-in-sentencing” into law. This increased maximum sentences for felony convictions, eliminated parole and required convicts to serve the entire length of the sentence for both imprisonment and supervision.
In 2001, the law was changed again to allow certain felons to petition the court for early release. And in 2009, Doyle created the early release program, which allows the DOC or a review commission to consider petitions for early release.
Taylor said the back and forth can create “over sentencing” in some cases where inmates were sentenced during a time where they are eligible to apply for early release but then unable to do so when the rules change.
“There are cases where that will be true,” Taylor said. “It’s impossible to say there won’t be.”
Dufour, president-elect of Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, said he “doesn’t think (over sentencing) is a major problem” because he does not think judges consider early release much when imposing sentences.
Van Hollen expressed frustration with the inconsistency in sentencing in 2009 saying it changed the rules by allowing bureaucrats to reduce sentences "(a)fter Judges – prosecutors – and victims understood what sentence a criminal was to get."