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Group says prison alternatives would save millions

By   /   November 27, 2012  /   4 Comments

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.

ANOTHER WAY: A new report finds Wisconsin taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars through alternatives to prison sentences.

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]


  • Pamela

    I work in community corrections. I agree we need to find alternatives to incarceration for SOME people, but for some, simply saying, “we cannot afford to incarcerate Mr. Smith” so come up with another solution is not acceptable. Especially when “Mr. Smith” is on Extended Supervision, absconded from program placements, continues to use illegal drugs, and engages in criminal behavior (albeit MISDEMEANOR criminal behavior). Especially when “Mr. Smith”‘s original offense was raping a 16 year old runaway but was pled down to a non-sex offense offense. Think that doesn’t happen? It does. And against the judgment by direct supervising staff, these decisions are made by management to reduce prison costs. Prison numbers are rising, let’s remember the people that are becoming adults are the children of many crack addicted individual of the late ’80’s and early 90’s. They we’re born into horrendous situations, some addicted at birth. We are dealing with a different generation of offender. I’m all for coming up with alternative solutions, because we cannot keep spending, but we also need to be realistic. Just my two cents.

  • Steve Janus

    #1. Bring the death penalty into Wisconsin

    #2. stop b****ing about the prison system budget..this is a prison state and “re-hab” does not work for the career criminal! Criminals love Wisconsin..its easy time!!

  • Brad

    “Non-violent” includes criminals who were nabbed before they could use the weapon they had on them. It also includes criminals who were interrupted before they could commit the rape or mayhem they intended to commit. So, let’s not be so hasty to apply “alternatives” to prison time. Especially since people are too soft to include the death penalty in the mix.

  • Kayrm1

    I also work in community corrections, and I know that alternatives to incarceration means additional workload on an already suffering and overworked workforce. What good does it do the community if “Mr. Smith” is assigned to caseload that is already in overtime status (mind you, community corrections staff are not allowed to work any useful overtime since the “reforms” took place, but the workload has nearly tripled in some parts of the state) – I agree with this article that we shouldn’t be so quick to incarcerate everyone, but unless actual useful reforms are going to take place in community corrections, all the state is doing is taking the prison population a and placing them on streets with overworked, overstressed, overburdened, underpaid supervision staff: say what you want about state employees, but what would John Doe Citizen prefer?