Sunday, February 11, 2007


You may recall a news item from a few weeks back that boiled down to:

This is your sentencing commission:

[The Wisconsin Sentencing Commission shall] (g) Study whether race is a basis for imposing sentences in criminal cases and submit a report and recommendations on this issue to the governor, to each house of the legislature under s. 13.172 (2), and to the supreme court.

This is your sentencing commission on irrelevance.

Gov. Jim Doyle today announced today that he will create a panel to study the
high rates of incarceration among blacks in Wisconsin.

The article didn't mention this was the second such panel commissioned in the past four years. (Or, for that matter, that the Commission is well on its way to completing a thorough report.) What's more, the first was empaneled within a few months of the Commission's establishment. Irrelevance, or at least invisibility, has been a permanent condition of the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission.

I certainly don't have the experience in or daily contact with sentencing that my fellow bloggers do, but I know two things well. The first, as Mike noted in his introduction, is the theoretical political science I'm immersed in at grad school. The second is the history of Wisconsin sentencing. Usually these two fields should complement each other such that I can chip in here with the occasional insight. In this case, however, the explanation for the WSC's irrelevance violates such basic tenets of political science that the policymaking theory in the first category overlooks it entirely. The Commission doesn't and never did have any stakeholders.

No one involved in establishing the Sentencing Commission had any interest in seeing it or its mission succeed. In hindsight, this was blindingly obvious from the outset; the enabling legislation excerpted above was tied up in legislative wrangling for over two years, and to my knowledge not a single policymaker involved in the wrangle or affected by its outcomes once mentioned the Commission or the guidelines it was supposed to promulgate. Legislators in both parties were solely concerned with crafting the provisions of truth-in-sentencing the bulk of the bill concerned, as were the victim's advocates and liberal reformers active in the debate. The only major exception was the state judiciary- who were concerned that the guidelines could potentially threaten judicial discretion. The commission was peripheral to almost everyone involved in its enactment (and a threat to the rest). Small wonder it's remained peripheral to this day.

It's hard to say what the exact practical lesson is to be derived from this. Perhaps it's that legislative ratifications of task force-created policy (like the study committee that developed the truth-in-sentencing bill) don't necessarily ensure support for the full scope of their recommendations. Or perhaps it's that sentencing commissions intended as purveyors of responsible policymaking are vulnerable to being trapped as mere symbols of such. But if my purpose on this blog is to shine a light on the relevance of policymaking, this is a wonderfully simple place to start: to predict the impact of reform, look at the stakeholders involved. Sometimes the balance is against progress; sometimes they're just not there.

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