After outlining the series in Friday’s Part I, the next several posts will address the proposals for sentencing reform made by a series of study groups within the state criminal justice community during the 1970s and early 1980s, which culminated in the formation of the first Wisconsin Sentencing Commission. The first proposal occurred as part of the work of the Special Committee on Criminal Justice and Goals.
Wisconsin’s involvement with sentencing reform began as part of a more general reconsideration of the state’s criminal justice policies within the Wisconsin Council on Criminal Justice (WCCJ). In 1974, Governor Patrick Lucey directed the WCCJ (known today, in revised form, as the state Office of Justice Assistance) to undertake a two-year project to develop consensual policy standards for “all facets” of the criminal justice system. The 125-member Special Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals was to undertake the project for every step of the criminal justice process, from arrest to prison, for juvenile and adult offenders alike.
Sentencing standards fell under the purview of the Courts subcommittee, chaired by Eau Claire Circuit Court Judge Thomas Barland. Prompted by the testimony of David Fogel, an early leading critic of indeterminate sentencing and the “medical model,” the subcommittee drafted standards to shift the state to determinate sentencing as well as to abolish parole. While both standards were seriously debated by the Committee, neither was successful. However, the committee did acknowledge the need for reform that had prompted the proposals in the first place, and did propose to confront it. While the Committee’s Final Report reaffirmed the principles of indeterminate sentencing, it also recommended the consideration of guidelines for judicial sentencing decisions. No immediate action was taken on the guidelines issue, but the Committee’s decisions served to reinforce the consensus for the indeterminate system within the criminal justice community- a factor which, under the coming circumstances, would lead back to guidelines.
As the WCCJ was deliberating, interest in sentencing reform was developing in the legislature. Several bills were introduced in the 1975 legislative session to increase sentence lengths and restrict parole, and the issue picked up speed in the 1977 session, when fifteen bills were introduced regarding mandatory and minimum penalties. Although none of those bills garnered enough support to pass, there was enough general interest in reform to pass 1977 Assembly Joint Resolution 79 (AJR 79), which directed the legislative council to study revisions to the state’s sentencing practices, including determinate sentencing. To fulfill its charge, the legislative council convened the Committee on Determinate Sentencing in the summer of 1978; among its members was Judge Barland.
By that time, however, the Committee was only the second organized response to the legislature’s interest in sentencing reform. The Standards and Goals Committee had noted and affirmed the need for reform, but within the indeterminate system. Thus the legislature’s expression of interest in determinacy- and consequently in reforming the indeterminate system itself- roused the judiciary into internal action. The Judicial Planning Committee of the Supreme Court appropriated funding for a detailed study of sentencing practice in the state, as well as an overview of the sentencing reforms undertaken in other states, to project the potential effects of reform. An advisory commission was formed, including several judges, lawyers, and Dane County District Attorney James Doyle. The research grant was awarded to the criminal justice department of the Wisconsin Center for Public Policy, to be led by its executive director, Sandra Shane-DuBow.
Part III will discuss “Felony Sentencing in Wisconsin,” the report the WCCP produced.