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Being Smart on Crime Could Lead to Big Savings for Wisconsin

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A smarter approach to criminal justice could reduce Wisconsin’s alarmingly large prison population and save the state millions of dollars. That’s the message brought to the state Capitol today by 11×15 Coalition for Justice, an alliance of faith-based groups. The group takes its name from its goal of reducing the state’s prison population to 11,000 people by the year 2015, down from its current level of about 21,000 people.

Wisconsin’s prison population has ballooned in recent decades, and costs have skyrocketed as well. Between 1990 and the high point in 2008, Wisconsin’s prison population nearly quadrupled, fueled in part by “tough on crime” initiatives that emphasized lengthy prison sentences. Since 2008, Wisconsin’s prison population has decreased slightly, but Wisconsin still imprisons a larger share of its population than many other states do. For example, Wisconsin’s incarceration rate is twice that of Minnesota. It costs the state about $38,000 per year to house an inmate.

The enormous jump in the prison population has had significant effects on state spending. Between 2000 and 2010, spending on corrections jumped by 9% after adjusting for inflation, according to a 2011 Wisconsin Budget Project report. In comparison, over the same period state spending on the University System dropped by 20% and spending on the public K-12 educational system dropped by 6%. And last month, the Department of Corrections asked the Legislature for an additional $9.2 million to cover higher-than anticipated operating costs that occurred because the prison population stayed level over the past year, rather than declining as originally projected.

Members of the 11×15 Coalition for Justice are converging on Madison today to visit policymakers and remind legislators that cost-effective reforms could significantly reduce state spending on corrections, as well as reducing the human cost that goes along with incarcerating a large number of residents. Treatment alternatives and diversion programs are widely recognized to be cost-effective reforms that save money and have positive impacts on offenders and communities. For example, a University of Wisconsin report estimated that a $20 million investment by the state in diversion programs could save taxpayers $87 million.

The 11×15 Coalition for Justice is advocating for legislators to add $75 million in the budget for alternatives to incarceration such as day reporting centers, electronic monitoring, and treatment courts for people with substance abuse and mental health problem. That amount represents a significant investment in treatment alternatives, but it’s small in comparison to the $340 million tax cut proposed by the Governor.

Now may be a favorable time to advocate for corrections reform, since in many states, policymakers from both sides of the aisle are beginning to make significant changes to get smarter about how we treat non-violent offenders. If we don’t invest in alternatives to incarceration, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that Wisconsin’s correction costs continue to climb.

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WI Budget Project

WI Budget Project