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Mass incarceration as the “new normal” in Wisconsin

Michael O’Hear from the Marquette University Law School has published Wisconsin Sentencing in the Walker Era: Mass Incarceration as the New Normal, 30 Federal Sentencing Report 125 (2017), which surveys the last eight years of sentencing policy in Wisconsin that readers may find interesting, even if they disagree with his conclusions.

Mass incarceration has become the new normal in Wisconsin, as it has across the United States. Unlike many other states, however, Wisconsin has failed to achieve any sort of bipartisan legislative consensus in favor of major reforms. … Although there have been a few legislative gestures in the direction of reduced use of incarceration, such as the TAD [Treatment Alternatives and Diversion—e.g., drug court] program and the authorization of ‘‘swift and certain’’ alternatives to revocation, these have been counterbalanced by a few gestures in the opposite direction, such as the new firearm minimums and increased OWI maximums. On the whole, legislative action has seemed reactive, ad hoc, and narrowly targeted. ….

Even as the legislature has been playing small ball, various state and local agencies in Wisconsin have been thinking big, envisioning a complete reorientation of the criminal justice system around the principles of [evidence-based decision making] and systematic risk-needs assessment. There seems considerable energy around this movement, but it is not yet clear whether and to what extent reformers will be able to overcome inertia among the on-the-ground actors in the system. Additionally, it is important to remember that EBDM does not pose a direct challenge to current incarceration levels. EBDM may well lead to a more cost-effective use of available prison space, but it does not necessarily dictate any reduction in the overall amount of prison space used. EBDM’s preservation of discretion has probably been a necessary condition to its acceptance by criminal justice leaders, but this also risks undermining its effectiveness. When it comes to Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate, the emergence of a new new normal seems unlikely any time soon.

Id. at 135.

(H/t Bill T.)

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