Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and GOP attorney general candidate Eric Toney hold a press conference at the Milwaukee Police Association. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
“June 3, 1997 was probably the worst day of my life,” Karen Kannenberg said at a Friday press conference hosted by the Milwaukee Police Association. In a voice heavy with emotion, Kannenberg recalled the day she learned that her sister Johanna Balsewicz had been murdered by Balsewicz’s husband Douglas. “I was supposed to take her to her first divorce hearing because she had to let go of Doug,” said Kannebnberg, describing him as, “a horrible, controlling, selfish person.” The calls started coming in when Kanneberg got to work. Her sister had been stabbed over 40 times, and Douglas Balsewicz was later convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Just three years after Balsewicz’s conviction in 2000, Wisconsin law shifted to a new model called truth-in-sentencing. After the law changed, the release of incarcerated people was no longer managed through the parole system, which is overseen by the parole commission. Anyone who was incarcerated prior to 2000, however, was still eligible for early release through the parole system. Balsewicz was one of the last people in Wisconsin to remain eligible for parole under the old rules.
For Johanna Balsewicz’s family members, each time the man who killed their loved one comes up for a parole hearing, their fears and frustrations are renewed that her killer could be freed. “If it’s not your loved one you have no idea how this is feeling, knowing that someone is now going to get out,” said Kanneberg. “This system has to change.” Kanneberg was joined at the Friday press conference by her sister Kim Cornils, as well as Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels and GOP attorney general candidate Eric Toney. Michels denounced Gov. Tony Evers for “coddling criminals” and condemned efforts by the Evers administration to reduce the prison population, with an ultimate goal of eventually cutting it in half.
“Tony Evers wants to coddle criminals,” said Michels. “He wants to release early on parole half the prison population, what kind of emphasis is that on helping our society be safer and better? We need to have a governor in Wisconsin that will stand up for the victims, like the ones standing behind me, and to make sure that there are no new victims. Because the bad guys need to understand if you’re not willing to do the time, then don’t do the crime.”
Michels stressed that his priority in office would be framed around reducing crime by supporting police and he pledged to “back the blue.” The Balsewicz case gained new attention earlier this year, when the parole commission decided to grant Balsewicz parole, generating a public outcry that was followed by the resignation of the commission’s chairman, John Tate II. Evers met with the Balsewicz family and the commission reversed its decision and kept him behind bars.
People who are released on parole are still subject to various requirements and conditions of release, which can range from remote monitoring and regular visits from case managers or local law enforcement. Probation and parole agents also have wide discretion to revoke the release and send an individual back to prison.
The family of Johanna Balsewicz believes that such releases shouldn’t happen at all. “We want it so that first- and second-degree intentional homicide, you’re not getting any chance to get out,” said Kanneberg.”You took a life. Why should you get to have a life out here?” She added that, “every year we have to go through this. When Doug is up for parole again, we’ve got to go through all this stuff again.” Both sisters said they often wonder whether their numerous letters and impact statements to the parole commission were ever read.
When they learned that Balsewicz was going to be paroled, Kanneberg and other family members protested outside the Capitol and at Evers’ office. Within weeks, the family was granted a private meeting with Evers. After the meeting, Evers wrote a letter to the commission asking that Balsewicz’s parole be reconsidered. After the commission reversed its decision, the family called for Tate to step down. He did, and was replaced with Chairman Christopher Blythe.
Throughout the Friday press conference Michels and Toney placed responsibility for parole releases of people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes or murder on Evers, U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the parole commission.
Toney also brought up rioting in Kenosha and the release of Darrell Brooks on bail just before he was arrested for driving through a crowd,killing six people and injuring dozens during last year’s Waukesha Christmas Parade. Neither of those events involve the parole system. Later in the press conference Michels was asked if he has “a list” of district attorneys he’d like to remove from office. “I’m not a guy who keeps lists,” said Michels. “I’m not a career politician. That seems kind of vindictive, if you will, to have lists of people.” Still, he said, if there were such a list, “near the top of the list [would be Milwaukee County District Attorney] John Chisholm.” Republicans have launched numerous attacks on Chisholm for the low cash bail assigned to Brooks before the Waukesha parade killings..
Toney highlighted the parole releases of “perhaps over 200 individuals that committed heinous murders, some of the most vicious murders in the state of Wisconsin, including some that murdered police officers.” He noted that, “these are discretionary releases for these murderers, that they didn’t have to be released.” Among the factors considered by parole commissioners are whether the release is in the interest of justice, and whether it would “depreciate the seriousness of the offense,” said Toney. “Why hasn’t the governor taken responsibility? Why hasn’t our attorney general Josh Kaul, as our top cop, spoken up? And why haven’t we heard anything from Mandela Barnes?”
Parole releases are governed through state statutes, which are followed by the parole commission and its governor-appointed chair. Specifically under Chapter 304, incarcerated people are eligible for parole upon serving 25% of their sentence, or 20 years if it happens to be a life sentence. Other conditions must also be met, and once a person is released they’re not really “free,” and must abide by conditions of release for set periods of time. Michels and Toney were asked whether the Republican-controlled Legislature shares any responsibility in the parole issue.
“I understand that the state statute says that you can get out after serving 25%, but that doesn’t mean when you get to 25% and one day that you should automatically be released,” said Michels during the press conference. “We need to take in all the factors.”
Parole eligibility does not mean people are automatically released after serving 25% of their sentences. Factors such as the individuals’ behavior while incarcerated, whether they’ve completed programming, have a release plan in order, have reduced the risk they pose to the public, and other factors are considered in addition to whether enough time has passed for them to become parole-eligible. Parole hearings allow the commission to consider whether parole should be granted in each case.
Anyone up for parole today has spent a minimum of 22 years in prison, since people are only eligible for parole if they were sentenced prior to the year 2000. 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.
At the Friday press conference, Michels shrugged off questions about the fact that previous Republican governors, including former Gov. Scott Walker, released more discretionary parolees than Evers. “I’m here to talk about what I’m going to do as governor,” said Michels, “And that’s what this election is all about. It’s not about the past four years, or the past eight, or the past 24 years. It’s about what the next four years are. And people are frustrated.”
Under Evers, the commission has granted 460 discretionary paroles. Walker granted more than 650 discretionary paroles in his two terms as governor and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson granted more than 23,000 discretionary paroles during the 14 years he served as governor.
Discretionary paroles are those in which the commission has some flexibility as it considers whether an individual qualifies for early release. Mandatory releases, on the other hand, can not be avoided and are often compelled by either court orders or state law.
“If the individuals at the parole commission aren’t doing the most basic fact-checking to see what a judge may have said in a transcript, or making sure that they’re communicating with families, and doing the extra effort, they have no business being in those positions,” said Toney. “And our Legislature already took some action to prevent this from happening again. Were it an intentional homicide now, the judge could say somebody is not eligible for release.
“We just need people to do their job,” Toney added. “That’s what we need, a parole commission, and a governor, that’s going to make sure they do their job.”
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