Bill co-author Sen. Julian Bradley said the bill aims to “add some guardrails to ensure that the victims and their families are able to handle” when an inmate is released. (Screenshot Wiseye)
The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee heard testimony on a bill that would expand the consideration of victims when an inmate is up for parole on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 230 would expand current law that allows victims to make statements during the parole process by requiring a parole commission or sentencing court to allow a victim to give an oral statement and use visual aids if they want. Victims would also be notified 30 days before release under the bill, an expansion of the current seven-day notice requirement.
Co-author Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin) told the committee that the bill — named Johanna’s Law — was a result of concerns expressed to him by the family of Johanna Rose Balsewicz, a mother who was murdered in 1997 by her estranged husband, Douglas Balsewicz. He was granted parole last year, which led to protests by the victim’s family, who thought he should remain in prison. Gov. Tony Evers met with the family and the parole board later reversed its decision.
“This bill is a result of direct feedback from Johanna’s family as well as other families that maybe did not receive the notification that was due to them and hopefully, this will enable the whole [Parole] Commission to notify people of what’s happened,” Bradley told the committee.
Currently, only people sentenced for a crime committed before Dec. 31, 1999 who have served at least six months or 25% of their sentence, whichever is longer, are eligible for parole. Those sentenced to life who committed crimes before the year 2000 are eligible after serving at least 20 years.
Balsewicz had served 24 years of his 80-year sentence before being granted parole.
Karen Kannenberg, the victim’s sister, testified at the hearing, saying that the family did not go to Balsewicz’s parole hearing but sent impact statements, under the impression he wouldn’t be released. When she received a letter from the Parole Commission on May 14, 2022 notifying her that Balsewicz could be released as soon as May 17, 2022 from the Parole Commission, she said she was in disbelief.
“It was like, ‘How can this be?’ This is three more days. We’re getting three more days and he’s going to be released. This is not enough time,” Kannenberg said. “But 30 days? We need to have this change for 30 days. We had three days to try and do something about this.”
Balsewicz’s parole decision was rescinded before he was released by the then-parole commission chairman at Gov. Tony Evers’ urging.
Former Sen. Jon Erpenbach, whom Evers recently chose to chair the Parole Commission, and whose confirmation was also being considered by the committee Wednesday, told the committee that victims are already heavily considered throughout the parole process.
Noting that there are currently 1,732 inmates in Wisconsin eligible for parole, Erpenbach explained that victims are notified when a parole hearing is upcoming. At the hearings, victims are given the opportunity to sit in or speak via Zoom or in person. Victims can also submit written victim impact statements.
Erpenbach acknowledged that communication could probably improve, but said the Office of Victim Services does its best, and that it’s key that the office knows where victims are, so they can properly communicate.
“It’s difficult to contact somebody if that individual is not registered,” Erpenbach said. “If that individual has moved and not given us information, it’s impossible. Not just difficult, it’s flat out impossible.”
Erpenbach said the bill considered on Wednesday is important for one reason — letters to victims currently must be postmarked seven days before parole could take effect. Erpenbach said inmates granted parole aren’t typically released on the day that their parole could start as it typically takes several weeks because of processing. In the case of the Balsewicz family, that meant they didn’t receive the letter until three days ahead of his scheduled release. “Seven days isn’t enough, and that’s what the law says and that needs to change,” he said.
The bill includes two more provisions. One would require inmates to go through a psychological evaluation before being released on parole or discretionary release on extended supervision. The final change would specify that information about a person who is released from prison and will be residing in a particular police chief’s or sheriff’s jurisdiction may be released to the public, if a police chief or sheriff finds it necessary to protect public safety.
“Do you think anyone convicted of murder should be let out of prison?” Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) asked the bill authors. Criticizing the bill, he said nothing should be legislated based on one event and said the bill would add more blockades to an “already overly stuffed prison system.”
“I do believe in second chances, and I believe that we have a system set up to allow for those second chances,” Bradley responded. “We’re just trying to add some guardrails to ensure that the victims and their families are able to handle when that decision is moved.”
One speaker, who said she was formerly incarcerated, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it wouldn’t help keep communities safe, but would only work to continue “disappearing people.”
“Please don’t put more barriers in front of the barriers that are already there. Adding a psychological evaluation will not yield answers that you’re looking for. I promise you they won’t,” the speaker said. “Halfway through my incarceration, the hopelessness, the despair caught up. I wanted to die and I almost did. I almost took my life. A psychological evaluation on someone who is currently incarcerated is not going to yield true answers.”
Erpenbach also added that there are financial and staffing constraints within Wisconsin’s corrections system.
“If we had and gave corrections the money to have the support staff that’s actually needed, you’d have different outcomes.” Erpenbach said. “Right now, we don’t do that. Right now, correctional officers are strapped. They are thin and they are overworked and trying to get psychological help within the prison system is actually difficult. We don’t have the staff and once an inmate is out, it’s also difficult for the inmate to get a second chance.”
Lawmakers have not yet received a fiscal estimate of how much it would cost for the Department of Corrections to implement the changes associated with the bill.
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