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For months, Republican candidates and campaign ads supporting them have unleashed a barrage of attacks on the release of incarcerated people. Efforts to reduce the prison population including Wisconsin’s parole and cash bail systems, have become focal points of this year’s midterm elections. Parole and bail operate on opposite ends of the criminal justice system, but many of the political messages that paint Democrats as soft on crime stigmatized incarcerated people, including those who have not been convicted and those who have already served their sentences.
The political attacks on systems that release incarcerated people have been troubling to behold for Wendy Volz Daniels, acting chair of the Felmers Chaney Advocacy Board and associate professor at Marquette University. Daniels compares the current barrage of crime-related ads to the infamous Willie Horton ad, created during the 1988 presidential election. George H.W. Bush used the ad to paint his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as dangerously soft on crime by associating him with Horton, an African American man who escaped and committed more crimes while on a prison furlough.
In September of 1988, third-party advertisements featuring Horton flooded the airwaves. “Weekend prison passes: Dukakis On Crime” one 30-second advertisement declared. A similar strategy dominates Wisconsin’s campaign messaging in 2022. Many of the advertisements focus on Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, casting him as “dangerous,” and insisting “he stands with them, not us,” in reference to criminals. Footage of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy and scenes of civil unrest are featured in the ads.
“This is Willie Horton all over,” Daniels tells Wisconsin Examiner. “I think minds greater than mine believe that that was one of the most racialized, divisive ads in our history. And I feel like, I sense, it’s a playbook that has been used over and over since 1988 for one party to uplift themselves as tough on crime, and the other party as weak on crime and to find opportunities to use these radicalized scare tactics in spreading a message that isn’t complete.”
Just as Dukakis did not create the furlough system in Massachusetts, in Wisconsin, parole and cash bail, which have been prominent targets as November nears, are complicated systems that have been in existence for many years. “The two seconds on the ad, people believe that stuff,” says Daniels. In cases of early release, Daniels says, “Most people who are sentenced to prison get out. We don’t even have to talk about parole, but most people who are sentenced to prison don’t die in prison. But in sound bites, we can’t have long conversations about this.”
Cash bail, unlike parole, involves people who are being held in jail on charges that have not yet been proven, also known as pre-trial detention. Since the U.S. legal system considers people innocent until proven guilty of a crime, people who get out on bail are not criminals. Those who can afford to pay get out, while those who do not have the means to cover bail remain in jail. Eliminating cash bail has been discussed among some progressive elected officials as a means to address a de facto poor tax.
In Wisconsin, people who have been convicted of crimes and incarcerated are only eligible for parole if they were sentenced before 2000, when Wisconsin adopted its truth-in-sentencing guidelines.
Daniels emphasizes that anyone on parole today has spent a minimum of 22 years in prison. According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), there were 269 people released through parole in 2021. The vast majority of the people DOC released that year — more than 6,200 people — remained under extended supervision after mandatory release. That includes people sentenced after 2000 under truth-in-sentencing who have completed their prison sentences.
Just over 2,200 people were released to Milwaukee County in 2021, while another 543 individuals went to Brown and Outagamie counties.
Those who were sentenced under the pre-2000 guidelines and who are now eligible for parole release must first have their prison records reviewed, and they’re also expected to have a release plan. Parolees are also expected to have completed the programming was required of them during their incarceration. “The state has a re-entry unit that is helping individuals to get together this plan,” Daniels says That work is done in collaboration with groups including Project Run, that work to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into the community.
“DOC is really helping men and women coming out of prison by having employment fairs and providing education,” Daniels says. Degrees and certificates from university studies to trade are also available. “People are like, ‘Really? You’re taking a college-level class?’ Like we don’t imagine that there are smart people in prison,” says Daniels.
As of Sept. 30, according to a DOC weekly population sheet, there were 63,957 people in Wisconsin’s probation/parole population. The sheet also documents 23,153 adults on parole who are on community supervision. “Notably, the Parole Commission since 2019 has granted fewer discretionary parole grants than any Commission in recent history,” states an overview of parole grants provided to Wisconsin Examiner by the Parole Commission.
From 2019 to present, the number of discretionary parole grants reported by the commission was approximately 460. Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson issued more than 23,000 discretionary parole grants over his 14 years as govenor.
According to the overview, discretionary parole grants were issued for 650 people under Gov. Scott Walker. There were a total of 1,397 total paroles during the Walker administration, some discretionary and some of them mandatory paroles. By comparison, a total of 895 people were paroled between 2019 and 2022, including both mandatory and discretionary releases. Discretionary paroles are those in which the commission has some flexibility as it considers whether the person fully qualifies. Mandatory releases, on the other hand, can not be avoided and are often compelled by either court orders or state law.
Daniels notes how similar the discretionary grants were between Evers and Walker. “It isn’t always a partisan issue, except when someone is trying to get elected,” says Daniels. Having served as acting chair of the Felmers Chaney Advocacy Board, which is connected to one of Milwaukee’s only adult re-entry facilities for men, Daniels says she has seen people change and move on after incarceration. “Let’s say they were 19, 20 21 when they were incarcerated,” Daniels says. “They’re 40-something now. I don’t think any one of us would say we’re the same person we were at 16, or 18 or 21.”
Even after release, people are still subject to the authority probation and parole officers. People who are on probation or parole can have their release revoked and be sent back to prison if even an accusation of a violation is made. Daniels highlights that the probation office has been attempting to rein in some of that authority. “There was sort of no due process,” Danielssays. “Like, if you or I commit a crime, then we have due process. But because these persons have committed a crime and happen to be on paper, there really is no due process. Some probation agent just decides that they go back to prison.”
Currently the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, built to function as a prison for as many as 460 probation violators, has a population of 349. According to a 2021 DOC recidivism document, reconviction rates have declined since 2000. Between 2000 and 2016, prior to the Evers administration, three-year rates for reconviction decreased by 16.1%. In her own work, Daniels says she has met many formerly incarcerated people who are “beautiful people” who have experienced deep trauma.
Many continue their education, start families, or raise businesses after being released. “They’ve changed,” says Daniels. She wonders why society doesn’t pay more attention to the trauma and poverty that lead people astray. Helping people reintegrate into the community successfully is a positive good for all of society, she notes. “Then we don’t have to marginalize anyone, we don’t have to be fearful of anyone.”
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