One of the benefits of bringing Joe Fontaine on board the blog here is to have access to his research and analysis of the history of sentencing policy in Wisconsin dating back into the 1970s. When Joe was a summer analyst for the sentencing commission in WI while I was director, I asked him to put materials together for a summary of state sentencing policy for our website. From that extensive research, Joe has also written a comprehensive history which we will be sharing with you over several posts in the coming weeks. We will also post it in our materials on the right side for later reference.
We believe it’s important to have written records like these to keep other efforts, including future WI ones, from reinventing wheels and from operating in the dark. Much of what you will read here has echoes in other states as they considered corrections sentencing policy and continue to do so today. Thus, this material might hopefully inform future actions. Also, however, these posts demonstrate the major reason we asked Joe to join us, that is, to provide a policy structure to what often is only legal theory or mechanical logistics for doing corrections sentencing policy. There is much to be learned and remembered in what you will read in this series, and, for those impressed with the quality of this work, keep in mind that Joe graduates from the La Follette Institute for Public Affairs at UW-Madison a year from May.
So enjoy and feel free to get a discussion going in the comments. We’ll appreciate it. -- Mike
In the summer of 1995, the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission held a farewell staff picnic. Its funding and statutory authority had been eliminated in the recently passed biennial state budget, and Commission offices were to be cleared in a matter of weeks. In commemoration of both the Commission and its fate, one staff member distributed t-shirts at the picnic. On the front was the Commission’s logo; on the back, the slogan “UNFAIRLY SENTENCED.”
As they collected their shirts, the Commission staffers stood at a turning point in the history of Wisconsin sentencing policy. Unfairly or not, the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission and the guidelines it had promulgated, the products of the first era of sentencing reform in the state, had met an abrupt end. But at the same time, the first stirrings of the next era, of truth–in-sentencing and the new guidelines and Commission that would accompany it, had already begun.
In this series, I shall provide an overview of both those eras, and thereby a comprehensive history of the past thirty years of sentencing practice in Wisconsin. I shall focus on the processes that led to the elimination of the state’s first sentencing commission and especially on those that brought the second commission to fruition. I shall begin with a brief overview of the first era of sentencing reform in Wisconsin, particularly concerning the creation of the first system of sentencing guidelines and first Wisconsin Sentencing Commission. After a similarly brief description of the first Commission’s policy efforts, I shall begin my more in-depth investigation by tracing the chain of events that ended in the scene with which we began, and analyzing the reasons behind the demise of that first system of sentencing guidance.
We may then begin to follow the arc that brings us to the present. After surveying early academic work and policy initiatives regarding the “tough on crime” movement and the truth-in-sentencing proposals that grew from it, I will provide a political and legislative history of the truth-in-sentencing initiative that Wisconsin enacted in 1997 Wisconsin Act 283. Particular attention will be given to discerning legislative intentions regarding the changes this legislation brought upon the sentencing system. That will be followed by a close examination of the group which played the most significant role in designing the present-day system, and therefore the necessary centerpiece of any work on modern-day Wisconsin sentencing: the Criminal Penalties Study Committee, created by Act 283 to make recommendations regarding the design of the sentencing system under truth-in-sentencing. Once again, discerning intent shall be the primary concern. The Committee’s report and supporting documents will be closely examined, to identify the purposes the Committee intended the new Commission and its guidelines to serve.
I will then discuss of the gridlock surrounding implementation of the Study Committee’s recommendations (featuring the unusual saga of the Governor’s Task Force on Enhancing Probation), which was finally broken by the passage of 2001 Act 109 in the summer of 2002. This report will then close with a discussion of the current Sentencing Commission and an evaluation of how its activities befit the context that legislators and committee members had, based on my previous analysis, actually intended.