The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety (JPS) held a hearing Tuesday morning to discuss several bills on the periphery of Wisconsin’s ‘tougher on crime’ debate. Four of the bills aim to increase penalties for offenses committed against prosecutors and probation agents.
JPS vice-chair Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), repeatedly called the bills “common sense” measures. AB-198 and its senate companion bill SB-185 expand existing laws making it a Class H felony to intentionally cause bodily harm to a parole or probation agent. Under these bills the punishable offense is expanded to include “intentionally harming a family member of the agent, or threatening to harm the agency or a family member.”
Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), who’s pushing SB-185, said the bill’s history is rooted in a conversation he had with a probation agent who said a client who was incarcerated in the Fond du Lac County Jail threatened his family. Hansen said the agent noted that while current law protects probation agents themselves, it does not cover threats against their families.
“As you will hear and read in testimony today,” said Hansen, “these agents supervise hundreds of offenders. They live in the same communities as the offenders they supervise. That places their spouses and their children at risk.”
Former probation agent Amanda Holz testified about facing such threats. Holz began her career as a probation agent in 2008, and experienced her first major threat a year later in 2009. “The Department of Corrections was seeking revocation on an offender that was currently on supervision for domestic violence,” said Holz. “He was ordered to not have contact with his wife who he brutally assaulted in front of their two-year-old son.” Holz learned from other incarcerated individuals on her caseload that the man was asking around to see if anyone would “take care” of her.
Holz said she was threatened again by a person who DOC was seeking to revoke, who was also a high-risk sex offender. Authorities recovered a journal after the individual was taken into custody, which detailed plans to “rape me at his house when his parents were not home during the home visits.”
She cited two more incidents which involved her, one of which resulted in a correctional officer being assaulted after a meeting. “Very well could’ve been me that day,” said Holz. The last incident she mentioned involved a person in 2016 who was threatening both Holz and her 1-year-old daughter including mentioning where she went to daycare. “The jail administration told me that, ‘sometimes you just got to take your lumps.’” In this incident, the police were unable to find enough evidence to do anything, she said.
Other agents attended the hearing, and there were more emotional stories. Still, some in the room weren’t convinced that adding penalties would solve the problem. Gil Halsted, a former journalist turned activist who attended an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lobby day in January to call for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin, saw the bills as unbalanced. “I think that the approach of increasing the penalties there over what they already are is not an effective way to deal with it,” Halsted told Wisconsin Examiner. “I’m not convinced that it actually will deter people. And it will keep people in prison longer, which will cost a lot of money.”
Halsted added, “If it’s a crime to threaten someone, or threaten their family, it should be the same for anybody. If someone threatens my family for whatever reason, they should face the same accountability as someone who threatens a probation agent. It’s just not logical to me that we should assign a higher penalty for the same crime because of who you do it to.” He wondered why the criminal justice system doesn’t treat everybody the same, “instead of dividing us all up into different elite categories of what role we play in the community.”
During his testimony Halsted pressed the importance of hard evidence showing that increasing penalties will deter such acts. “I don’t see why somebody threatening my child should be charged with a lesser crime than someone who threatens a probation agent’s child,” he said. “Everybody should be equal before the law. I think there should be penalties. People need to be held accountable. But when we start dividing up who’s more important than who or what role they are playing in society and decide that’s how we’re going to punish people, unless we can really show that enhancing penalties does have that desired effect, I really feel like it just makes us feel better to beat people with a bigger stick.”
Sens. Jacque and Van Wanggaard, the committee chair, brushed back Halsted’s arguments. Wanggaard said someone who threatens your child just to threaten them, “that’s different than someone threatening my child because I arrested them, or I arrested one of their family members.” A former law enforcement officer himself, Wanggaard declared, “You bet every time I’m going to go after that individual for whatever that maximum charge is.” Jacque added, “There’s bias in statistics,” dismissing Halsted’s call for evidence.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) sparred with Wanggaard over the way the bills continue to steer Wisconsin’s criminal justice system toward longer sentences and more incarceration. “A human being is a human being is a human being is a human being,” said Taylor. She pressed the importance of evidence-based reforms to the system, and the need for legislators to listen to the experts rather than relying on their emotions. “We have a majority that has chosen to have that mindset instead of seeing our problems and actually trying to address it, like the experts are telling us to do!”
Taylor urged her colleagues who are pushing for higher penalties and more incarceration to help the state “change our mindset so we’re not spending more on our criminal justice system than we are on education.” Speaking directly to Wanggaard, Taylor said, “We have a Department of Corrections, not a Department of Punishment.”
Even Holz, who’s had personal experience with threats in her profession, subscribes to the evidence-based approach. “When I was an agent I was a huge advocate of evidence-based practices and what we were implementing in the system within my local office,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “But sometimes, you get those people that have just had too much trauma in their life and have so much impulsivity. So, I’m completely in on criminal justice reform and I don’t believe incarceration is always the answer. However, when you cross the line and affect my family, that’s when it’s appropriate.” The people who cross that line often have “mental health issues where they’re refusing to take psychiatric meds or instances like that where they don’t know reality exactly,” she added. “And they don’t know how far they go.”
Although Holz says that probation agents are trained to have “thick skin,” their families are not trained and shouldn’t have to be prepared for these situations. “Agents are well adapted to deal with this,” she told Wisconsin Examiner, “our family did not sign up for this. My husband did not sign up for this, my daughter did not deserve this.”
At the end of the emotionally charged debate Halsted said he believes the bill will pass because it has the veneer of common sense. “I just don’t think it’s going to make a big difference in terms of reducing the kind of crime you want to reduce,” he added. “I think it’s just going to make you feel better.”