Evers pushes legal cannabis and justice reform as Badger State reinvestment

"This budget isn't my budget, it's your budget"

Gov. Tony Evers gives his 2021-23 budget address (via YouTube).
Gov. Tony Evers gives his 2021-23 budget address (via YouTube).

Cannabis legalization and other criminal justice reform strategies took center stage Wednesday in Gov. Tony Evers’ live stream discussion of his Badger Bounceback plan.

“This budget isn’t my budget, it’s your budget,” the governor said during the event. “Our justice system has put a strain on our state, and on our communities, and on our families for far too long.”

Over 200 people were listening to the address through a Zoom chat, though many more likely saw it on YouTube. While some attendees were from organizations like MICAH, a multi-ethnic interfaith organization, others were simply concerned residents. Once given an opportunity to share comments, many brought up cannabis legalization.

Bringing either statistics or personal stories to the table, they questioned the point of the continued prohibition. Others touched on the issue of not only incarcerated youth, but young people remaining under-served in communities because of a lack of mental health treatment. Francis Zabrowski, a volunteer chaplain at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), said “I’ve heard so many stories, both men and women who are stuck in these jails, and yet have tremendous potential. So, I would like to take the point of view of how to best use taxpayers’ money. And, as many said already, invest in humanity.”

During the address Evers admitted, “we’ve got a lot to change.” The Badger Bounceback plan outlines several policy shifts which Evers said he hopes will begin to remedy some of that strain. Those changes include expanding the Department of Corrections’ earned release program, community alternatives to incarceration and revocation and legalizing cannabis.

“In addition to working to correct the disproportionate impact of marijuana enforcement on communities of color within the justice system, we’re also proposing using about $80 million in new tax revenue generated by legalization to be reinvested in communities through the community reinvestment fund,” Evers said.

The 2021-23 budget outlines bold plans to support infrastructure, transportation, education and other areas which have been neglected. “We can’t be doing things the same way we’ve always done them,” Evers said. “Because frankly, to paraphrase something a constituent said at our listening sessions, ‘the system isn’t serving the people, it isn’t serving the victims, it isn’t serving public safety and it isn’t serving the future success of our state.’ ”

When the budget was announced, the governor noted that legal recreational cannabis could become a $165 million industry for the state.

Woman in room filled with drying marijuana plants hung upside down
Photo by Terre di Cannabis on Unsplash

While Wisconsin’s GOP legislative leaders have already signaled that they won’t budge on cannabis prohibition including confirmation Thursday by Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu that there are not enough votes in the state Senate, cannabis reform has become more of a bipartisan issue, with Republican state representatives introducing their own proposals to legalize medical cannabis or lower existing fines. Local municipalities from Appleton to Milwaukee have successfully passed ordinances to lower fines for cannabis possession. And in Madison, cannabis is essentially decriminalized.

“It just makes sense for us to take this step,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who also participated in Wednesday’s event. “There’s no reason that we shouldn’t join the other 17 states that have legalized recreational marijuana. And not only are we continuing to lock people up for something that many people in other states not only do freely, but for the same business arrangement that have made people millionaires virtually overnight across this country. It is a waste of money, it is a waste of time and it is completely unjust.”

Beyond simply legalizing, the Bounceback plan also aims to aid people who’ve had past cannabis-related convictions. Barnes noted that Evers has issued more than 150 pardons and the Department of Corrections has expanded the earned release program.

Evers said he also wants to modify criminal penalties so that people previously convicted of — or still serving time for — marijuana-related crimes can have their sentences repealed or reduced to non-violent minor offenses.

By investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration, the Evers administration also hopes to overhaul Wisconsin’s juvenile criminal justice system. The youth prisons of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have been controversial for years. As part of a 2017 lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the Department of Corrections to make urgent changes to the facilities operations, especially around the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement, and other questionable tactics.

Lincoln Hills detention facility
Lincoln Hills, a detention facility the state has ordered closed by 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Although recent reports show some of these conditions have improved, the youth facilities still lack overall structured programming and youth are still being detained several hours from home. An isolation made worse by restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue was brought up by Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy during a town event in late February. Clancy asked DOC Secretary Kevin Carr when he’d be allowed to visit the facility. Carr answered, “when it’s appropriate.”

Part of the logic in closing the facilities has always been to move the youth closer to home, where they can prepare to re-enter the community. However, funding alternative facilities was a legislative battle even before the pandemic. Exactly where the new facilities could be built and in what context remains a point of debate both at the local and state level.

Evers pointed out that his administration’s “plan includes training to make sure that kids are being best served by our youth justice agencies with training, and understanding of adolescent brain development, best practices for engaging kids and approaching delinquency, and understanding the unique needs of girls and LGBTQ youth. And we’re going to change the way that we sentence our youth to require the courts to truly consider youth’s risk, treatment needs, and severity of the offense. And, as one of only three states that hasn’t done this already, we’re going to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile system. Because our system should be about both accountability and opportunity for treatment, and rehabilitation for kids to get on the right track with the right support.”

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The budget is now in the Joint Finance Committee, where Republicans have vowed to toss it out and start all over labeling Evers’ ideas as too liberal.  Evers encouraged all Wisconsinites to contact their local representatives and, if they support the governor’s budget, tell them why.

“We’re going to do better for our kids, by truly overhauling the system by focusing on evidence-based solutions and a community-based approach to facilities so that we can keep our kids closer to home,” said Evers. “Folks, there’s no true path forward for our state without justice reform. It’s time to start investing in people, not prisons.”