By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — A large-scale change in how the state deals with low-risk, non-violent criminal offenders could make Wisconsin’s communities safer and save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Human Impact Partners, a California-based non-profit, non-partisan research organization, collaborated with Milwaukee-based faith group WISDOM on a yearlong study looking at the effect of expanding the Treatments, Alternatives and Diversion, or TAD, program in Wisconsin.
The findings: A $75 million investment into alternative-to-incarceration programs would save taxpayers $150 million in incarceration costs.
WISDOM lobbied for the initial TAD program in Wisconsin in 2005. It subsequently launched the “11 x 15 campaign for a safer, healthier Wisconsin,” which seeks to reduce the state’s prison population by 11,000 inmates over the next three years.
It appears the criminal justice community is coming on board.
“It’s the just thing to do. It’s the correct thing to do. And it’s also the most cost-effective,” said Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm on a conference call Tuesday discussing the report. “This is our opportunity in time to combine what had traditionally been polar opposites: people that are interested in social justice with those who are fiscal conservatives, and actually the two of them go hand in hand with this agenda here.”
Chisholm said he’s encouraged by recent developments in the state’s evolving criminal justice system, such as the state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council — which Chisholm says allows local governments to give direct input to the state on what’s working and what’s not.
Successful alternative-to-incarceration programs and studies that have followed are more prevalent, changing the debate on how to deal with low-risk offenders.
“Law enforcement and public safety officials throughout the state fundamentally agree … that we can do better as a system in identifying people that can be safely rehabilitated within the community,” Chisholm said.
A University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute study conducted for the state Department of Corrections found alternative and diversion programs yield significant cost savings. For every dollar invested in TAD programs, the state saved $1.93 in corrections costs. The same study found a TAD graduate is nine times less likely to return to state prison than other offenders.
A Pew Center on the States study showed Wisconsin’s recidivism rate at 46 percent, 6 percent higher than the national average.
WISDOM and HIA recommend a $75 million investment into TAD programs, about $74 million more than currently allotted.
David Liners, WISDOM’s executive director, says the large investment is necessary to achieve quick returns.
“The way that we reduce the cost of the state prison system is to reduce the population enough that we can close a facility,” he said, asserting that expanding the scale would “significantly” cut into the state’s $1.3 billion annual Corrections budget. The department has proposed a $2.57 billion operating budget for biennial 2013-15, a $21 million increase from the current two-year state budget.
Twenty years ago, the state’s prison population was fewer than 8,000. By 2007, the number had nearly tripled. Crime rates, meanwhile, have stagnated or fallen in most categories. About 60 percent of the state’s prison population is considered non-violent offenders.
Over the past two decades, Wisconsin’s prison budget has exploded. In 1990, the annual Department of Corrections budget was $179 million.
“If the state increased funding for TAD and similar programs to $75 million, Wisconsin would reduce the number of people sent to prison cells by thousands each year … and reduce crime by almost 1,000 offenses over five years,” said Kim Gilhuly, main researcher at Human Impact Partners.
Gilhuly said another $20 million could be used to expand TAD programming for mental health treatment, addiction recovery, and in working with the Department of Children and Families to keep families together.
In his budget request, DOC Secretary Gary Hamblin said Corrections is working to improve its comprehensive plan, which “provides re-entry services for offenders prior to their release.” The goal, Hamblin said, is to improve offenders’ “transition and reintegration back into their communities and improve safety of those communities.”
The source of funding to expand the treatment, alternative and diversion program remains unclear. While Wisconsin’s fiscal house has improved from a $3.6 billion budget shortfall in the beginning of 2011 to projections of excess revenue of $283 million by June 2013, according to Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, a troubled economy and a budget-cutting governor are expected to keep increased spending in check.
Chisholm suggested an approach in which counties receive payments from the state if they send fewer prisoners to the correctional system.
“We’ve been meeting with members of the Legislature around the state to familiarize them with this,” said Liners. “Our expertise at WISDOM is not in crafting legislation, we’re simply saying that this is a terrific need and this is a budget year. If we’re going to have money for alternatives it has to happen during this year so that it can become part of the state budget.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]