Examining Wisconsin’s parole system through the political fog

Critiques of an ‘ancient’ system shake up the parole commission and the governor’s race

By: - June 20, 2022 7:00 am
(Image via pxHere.com)

(Image via pxHere.com)

As Wisconsin edges closer to the fall elections, Republicans have held on tightly to tough on crime rhetoric. Recently, Republican lawmakers and candidates for governor have focused attention on Wisconsin’s early-release system and especially on the issue of  parole. After a man convicted of murdering his wife in front of the couple’s children in 1997 was set for parole release, having completed 25 years of an 80 year sentence, Republican candidates blasted Gov. Tony Evers as soft on crime. Evers met with the family, and shortly afterward the parole board reversed its decision, revoking parole for Douglas Balsewicz. A few weeks later Evers’ parole commission chair, John Tate, stepped down.

The case became a political liability for the governor. But there was little discussion in the news coverage of  whether or not the parole system operated the way it was supposed to.

rear view of prison officer leading prisoner in handcuffs in corridor in jail. Inmate wearing orange
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Balsewicz was notorious in Wisconsin in the late 1990s for his crime. Now 54 years old, the West Allis man stabbed his wife 40 times, killing her in front of their children, and was subsequently sentenced for the killing as well as for burglary. Balsewicz was sentenced to 80 years in 1997, just before the state adopted its truth-in sentencing law in 2000. No one sentenced in the state of Wisconsin after the law was enacted can become  eligible for parole. Thus, the state parole commission has no interaction with people who were sentenced after 1999. As of June 10, Department of Corrections statistics show that there are 62,959 people on probation/parole in Wisconsin.

Adam Stevenson, clinical professor, director of the Frank J. Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School, noted that people may confuse parole with what is now often called early release. The truth-in-sentencing law provided a sort of “clarity” to sentences, he explains, separating them into a clearly designated periods of time incarcerated and time under community supervision. For example, someone convicted of a felony might spend 10 years behind bars followed by five years on extended supervision. Parole, on the other hand, acts as a sort of floating date within the imposed sentence.

In Balsewicz’s case, that meant that at some point during his 80 year sentence the parole commission would be empowered to reconsider  when his incarceration should end and supervision begin. “A person who is on parole is out in the community in a similar fashion to a person who’s out on supervised release, or extended supervision,” Stevenson says. “There are different processes or different things that may apply if they do something wrong, or if something happens, but it’s a very similar type of situation. That is, they’re just following different rules and under supervision out in the community.”

Adam Stevenson, clinical professor, director of the Frank J. Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School. (Photo | University of Wisconsin Law School)
Adam Stevenson, clinical professor, director of the Frank J. Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School. (Photo | University of Wisconsin Law School)

Under the truth-in-sentencing law, “What we don’t have is this sort of floating decision about when to release an individual to supervision,” he adds. “That’s where parole was different.” Under the old system, in some cases, people convicted of crimes including first-degree intentional homicide wouldn’t be eligible for parole at all. It was also rare for release to be granted at an individual’s first parole hearing. Normally, they’d have to go through several cycles of review. Review could take place on a variable timeline depending on the case — with hearings occurring on a cycle of years or months, depending on the case.  Balsewicz had been before the parole board five times, starting in 2017. Parole also had a provision for mandatory release, meaning at a set end date an individual would be required to be released on parole.

This year Balsewicz finally became eligible for parole after serving 25 years without incident during his incarceration. The prospect of his release worried the family of his victim, Johanna Rose Balsewicz. As the family voiced their concerns, Republican candidates for governor began make campaign statements about the case, similar to the statements they made calling for Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm’s firing for setting a $1,000 bail for the man who subsequently drove his vehicle into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, killing six people and injuring 62 others.

After the Balsewicz case, Republicans called for notifying the families of victims six months prior to a parole hearing and providing the public with a portal to see when hearings are scheduled and learn about release decisions. Republican candidates also floated appointing someone with law enforcement experience as commission chair.

In early May Johanna’s family met with Evers and his top aide, pressing the governor to reconsider Balsewicz’s release. By mid-June the release was terminated, and Parole Commission chair John Tate, who’d been appointed by Evers, had announced his resignation. Tate’s removal had been a GOP ambition for some time, with Senate Republicans already having made an unsuccessful attempt to remove him.

Gov. Tony Evers vetoes bills making it harder to vote on Aug. 10 | Evers' YouTube
Gov. Tony Evers | YouTube

The Balsewicz case ignited a reaction, forcing the state to reacquaint itself with a system which Stevenson points out “is becoming a bit of an ancient thing in Wisconsin.” More than two decades of truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin has set an expiration date on the state’s parole cases.

One misconception about the old system is that the parole commission could, in theory, choose to never release an individual. In fact, mandatory release dates made parole inevitable. “Some of what I hear about parole tends to be that folks would not get out, were it not for the parole commission giving a release,” Stevenson told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s true that they might not have gotten out at the time that they did. But it’s not true that they would not [ever] have gotten out.”

Stevenson also notes that the statutes and the parole commission’s own code already provide notification to victims or their families to make them aware of hearings and give them the opportunity to participate. He also highlighted the addition of Marsy’s Law to the state constitution, which encodes a number of victims’ rights. “It includes certain rights to attend proceedings, to timely notification of proceedings, and so forth,” said Stevenson. “The long and short of it is there are a number of bodies of law that require the ability of a victim or a victim’s family to partake in the process and to be heard and provide input in the process.”

Parole as a system grew out of a belief in rehabilitation as a goal of  the criminal justice system. Milwaukee-based criminal defense attorney Deja Vishny explains that it’s a philosophy in which the goals of the system include applying an appropriate punishment, protecting the public and rehabilitation of the offender. “Parole has changed a lot in Wisconsin over the years,” says Vishny. At one point, parole was partly set based on the amount of time that you received, with shorter sentences unlikely to result in quicker parole time. The system later changed so that a person could begin applying for parole after serving a specific portion of their sentence.

A close up on barbed wire outside a possible prison or jail facility
Credit: Richard Theis/EyeEm/Getty

Certain criteria also have to be met in order for the commission to approve a release. “So for example, serving sufficient time so that release would not depreciate the seriousness of the offense,” says Stevenson. Upon learning of Balsewicz’s release, members of Johanna’s family questioned why he’d be allowed to serve less than half his sentence. Another factor that the commission considers is whether the individual has demonstrated a satisfactory level of adjustment to the institution, hasn’t neglected duties required by the prison, participation in programming, the person’s release plan as well as whether the person would pose a risk to the public and whether the release is  in the interest of justice. Victim impact statements and other criteria are also considered.

Ultimately the decision to release is up to the discretion of the commission. “Whether right, wrong, whether a different person would do it or not, that is the nature of the parole system,” says Stevenson. “We entrust the parole commission to make a learned decision based on these criteria” Within the commission’s code, the chair does have the ability to withdraw the recommendation of release if new information comes to light. There is also a process for challenging the recession of release.

Stevenson says since truth-in-sentencing was enacted more than two decades ago, those who remain on parole are individuals serving lengthy sentences for serious offenses. Parole for lower level things like drug possession or petty theft have likely expired by now. “It’s against that backdrop that we consider all questions of parole — both this gentleman in particular as well as any parole decision going forward.”

Vishny was troubled by the rapid politicization of Balsewicz’s release, and the shaking up of the parole commission. The rules formerly incarcerated people must abide by while on parole are very strict, and a mere allegation of criminal conduct will land the person right back in prison. Vishny also notes that generally, criminal behavior tends to taper off among individuals who reach late middle age.

Prison guard
Prison guard (photo by Getty Images, ImageSource)
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Lack of opportunity for early release increases mass incarceration. And when people have no possibility of getting parole, they have no incentive to improve their behavior.

“The whole point of having a parole commission is you review how people have adjusted in incarceration,” explains Vishny. What has their conduct been like, have they participated in programming, and a myriad of other considerations. She wasn’t surprised that Balsewicz had applied for parole several times in the past and been rejected.

Vishny stresses that there is a stark difference between how people are sentenced in the criminal justice system and the expectations of a victim’s family. “Look, most people who’ve lost a loved one in a homicide don’t want the person to ever get out,” said Vishny. “But we don’t have sentencing by victims. We have sentencing by independent judges, who make a determination based on different factors. Not just whether the victim is angry.”

In that light, Vishny feels that the parole shouldn’t have been revoked, and the commission and case became a target of opportunity for the GOP. The defense attorney and retired head of the state public defender’s homicide practice group says “It became very political. The Republican Party is trying to use this to their advantage so they can win the governor’s election. And the governor, I think, caved into public sentiment because he’s concerned about being re-elected.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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