Democrats plead with Republicans to discuss criminal justice reform
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) uses a chart he made to demonstrate why various conservative members of the Joint Finance Committee should support meaningful criminal justice reform. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner}
Criminal justice reform — an area where other states have found bipartisan cooperation on creating a more compassionate and cost-effective system — continues to fall by the wayside in Wisconsin state-level policies.
The reticence to even discuss the matter, let alone find solutions, was front and center last week at a Joint Finance Committee budget meeting, where legislators were considering budget requests for the 2021-23 biennial budget from the Department of Corrections dealing with local courts, public defenders and district attorneys.
As the meeting began, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) confronted the reluctance of Republican committee members to even discuss the place criminal justice reform has in the budget and how it impacts these other budgetary areas.
“It’d just be faster to let us talk on our motion than to continue to do this,” Goyke said after his attempt to discuss issues like modernizing the juvenile justice system and tackling crimeless revocations of people on probation — measures that were within the Democratic motion — had been shot down by the GOP committee chairs.
As soon as Goyke mentioned revocation, however, he was again stopped by committee co-chair Rep. Howard Marklin (R-Spring Green) because those policy changes had already been removed by the JFC in previous meetings — a procedural measure the co-chairs are using. Conceding and moving onto his next motion, Goyke continued to press.
“So what was just removed in the last procedural motion by the co-chair was silencing the debate on criminal justice reform in this budget,” Goyke said. “Forty-five states in this country have acted to safely reduce their prison populations through criminal justice reform. The federal government, under former President Trump, passed legislation to safely reduce the federal prison population. I continue to be frustrated and exhausted with Republicans in Wisconsin unable and unwilling to even have the debate publicly about reforming our criminal justice system, safely reducing our prison population, and our prison budget.”
Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) later deflected Goyke’s comments by referencing bipartisan bills related to criminal justice being developed. He praised efforts being made elsewhere in state government outside of the budget debates and criticized Gov. Tony Evers for including reform in his budget plan.
“The governor tried to make massive changes, wholesale changes, major policy changes to this in the state budget,” said Born. “And while we have not certainly addressed the entire issue we have made some good steps, we’ve done some good things with bipartisan legislation.” Mentioning elected officials who’ve worked on criminal justice legislation, Born added, “I’m confident they’ll both be continued parts of future solutions on this topic. Just not in the state budget.”
Goyke, in turn, noted that “a couple of years ago the amount of general purpose revenue that the state of Wisconsin spends on prisons outpaced the general purpose revenue that we spend on the university system. When we spend more on prisons than colleges, we have a problem. That is not sustainable.”
He argued that Wisconsin needs to utilize policies which act as “justice reinvestment.” As a prison budget is down-sized, the savings can be re-allocated to policies which reduce crime, he explained. He spoke in particular to Wisconsin’s juvenile justice policies, such as treating 17-year-olds as adults, which other states have moved away from doing.
“We could fund the treatment we need,” Goyke said, “housing needs, law enforcement needs, victim-witness services. And you could find it in the Department of Corrections budget if you safely begin to reduce the prison population.
“That was the opportunity that was before us in the previous motion,” he continued. “But again Republicans, just like previous debates, are running from the debate about criminal justice reform.”
Committee Democrats followed Goyke’s lead, stressing the importance of funding programming to help reduce recidivism in the prison population. Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) spoke of having visited incarcerated Wisconsinites and hearing their stories of regrets and sadness, but also hopes for their futures. “They need services and resources and support to succeed,” Neubauer said. “And it is our duty to make sure that they receive them. Funding these programs is the responsible thing to do; it is the right thing to do.”
The committee ultimately approved funding for programs and departments across the criminal justice system, from the Department of Justice to the courts, prosecutors and public defenders — though rarely to the level that Democrats say the state desperately needs. For example, Evers had proposed spending $15 million on the state’s drug and alcohol treatment courts. Republicans ended up appropriating an extra $2.5 million.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) condemned the low level of funding and, borrowing a phrase Evers frequently uses, said, “we have to start connecting the dots,” on the cycle of incarceration. She pointed to long waitlists of several hundred people who are trying to engage in the programming which the finance committee refused to touch. “We have to realize that if we want to decrease our adult prison system, then we have to do something to fix foster care,” Johnson said, as one example. “When we can create foster care and make that more legitimate and self-sustainable, we can reduce our adult prison system by at least 20%.
“We have to do something in regards to mental and substance abuse because we know that 80% of our adult female individuals that are housed in adult prisons have a mental health diagnosis.”
It all ties together, Johnson noted. “We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can with the taxpayer money that we’re spending to make sure that once these individuals come into our jail systems, that they have everything that they need to be successful once they’re released,” she added.
As motions on the Department of Corrections budget requests came and went on party-line votes favoring the GOP (which holds 12 seats to the Democrats four seats), Goyke decided to take a more creative strategy. “I had a little arts and crafts moment today,” he said, holding up a chart with the faces of the 12 Republican members on the Joint Finance Committee. He’d organized them in line from most moderate to most conservative — by his judgment — and come up with reasons why they all should support criminal justice reform in the budget. Going member to member, the former public defender made his case.
“So if you’re a moderate conservative, and you’re interested in equity and social justice, like I know some of the colleagues on this committee are, criminal justice reform checks that box,” he said. Moving to more religious members, Goyke appealed to their sense of faith. “The idea of redemption and forgiveness is pretty central in the New Testament,” he said. Then came the “populist conservatives,” for which Goyke noted that criminal justice reform is a popular initiative for fiscal conservatives, and libertarians and those who simply want to reduce the size of government.
“There’s all kinds of silos of the Republican Party that I could put on this chart,” said Goyke holding up his handmade craft project. “You want to keep families together? You want to keep two-parent households together? You want to not incarcerate moms and take them away from their kids, then let’s talk about criminal justice reform.”
From Sen. Duey Strobel (R-Saukville) to Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) he called out Republican members of the committee. “There is a place for you in criminal justice reform, Wisconsin Republicans,” Goyke told them. “Your colleagues around the country get it.”
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