Part XVI ended with Governor Tommy Thompson and Attorney General (and eventual Governor) James Doyle introducing truth-in-sentencing proposals in late 1996 that overshadowed the reformist recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections. This post is the first of several that will address the legislative history of truth-in-sentencing thereafter. I begin by outlining the frames and terms of debate over the policy among supporters of Governor Thompson’s plan.
In public discourse, the truth-in-sentencing initiative was identified primarily with its provision to abolish parole; newspaper headlines and legislative press releases alike generally described it a “Bill to End Parole.” However, that identification could be somewhat misleading; although supporters (such as Doyle in his original proposal) would make occasional criticisms of the parole system itself, parole abolition was not the primary stated intention of truth-in-sentencing. From Thompson’s original statement onward, truth-in-sentencing was framed first and foremost as a systemic issue of ending indeterminacy and ensuring that offenders “serve[d] the full time period,” the issue rooted primarily in response to disparities between sentences and time served. In short, parole abolition may have been the leading effect associated with the proposal, but it was the imposition of “truthful” sentences, and its anticipated impacts on the sentencing system, which formed the thrust of the proposal and the crux of the debate. Stated in the most general terms, arguments for truth-in-sentencing were focused on the public’s views of and relationship with the sentencing system, while critics focused on the strains on the system truth-in-sentencing could portend. We shall examine each in turn.
As the design first introduced and considered in the legislature, Governor Thompson’s truth-in-sentencing proposal set the terms of the legislative debate. Thus, “supporters” and “critics” in the following sections are defined as such by their view on the Thompson proposal. Proponents of Thompson’s proposal- led in the legislature by Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Brookfield), and Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwautosa), chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee, and often supported by Doyle and members of the criminal justice system- justified their support almost entirely in populist terms. Rep. Walker, perhaps the most vocal supporter of truth-in-sentencing throughout the process, characterized the law as being “really about certainty and consistency.” But more specifically, truth-in-sentencing would be about certainty and consistency in the eyes of citizens- and especially for victims. To Walker, “the bottom line [was] about victims.” As the relative of one murder victim put it, “the only comfort” a family could have was that the murder would serve his full term in prison- not a fraction of the time “like she would in Wisconsin.”
This certainty was also needed to confront the perceived fear and disillusionment the indeterminate system created among the general public. As Judge Thomas Barland put it, “I have always been sympathetic to members of the public bewildered or upset when they know someone sentenced to five years in prison will not serve five years.” Judge Michael Brennan later explained how this personal issue became a policy problem. “Part of public safety”, he wrote in a recent defense of truth-in-sentencing, “is eliminating fear and uncertainty as to whether or not this offender will victimize again.” In Wisconsin’s indeterminate system, where the sentence handed down had no direct bearing on the time an offender would actually served, Brennan and Barland agreed that “criminal sentencing” consequently “lacked credibility.” In short, the system lacked the faith of the citizens it was intended to protect; and that faith was not just desirable, but a necessary component of the public safety the system was supposed to provide.
Having defined the issue as a problem of public perception, supporters thusly emphasized the perceptual benefits truth-in-sentencing would bring. The perceived bewilderment could be fought by introducing a system which ensured that a five year sentence would mean five years served; the “cynical belief that convicts were routinely sprung early” stemming from the indeterminate system’s lack of credibility would be defused. While supporters noted these undesirable points of view ostensibly held by citizens, truth-in-sentencing was more often framed in positive terms of how the system would improve: “credibility and coherence,” as well as “public confidence” in the system, would be restored. In other words, the newfound certainty and clarity of the system would ensure that sentences were understandable to and taken seriously by average citizens. Sentences would no longer be “artificial” and meaningless; and, per the fears Brennan referred to, “families would be given peace of mind” regarding the workings of the justice system.
While the above constituted the dominant narrative for supporters, their most prominent secondary argument is also worth noting, for its reinforcement of truth-in-sentencing’s framing in populist terms. Doyle and Thompson both emphasized that another benefit of truth-in-sentencing would be that sentencing decisions would be made by elected, “accountable” judges rather than the unelected members of the parole board. In the minds of its two progenitors, truth-in-sentencing was not simply designed in response to public views of the system; it was also a reform that would make the system regularly responsive to those views.
Supporters made clear what they, and truth-in-sentencing, stood for: the various “c” words are consistently repeated throughout public accounts on the issue. They were equally clear in highlighting that truth-in-sentencing was not intended to increase sentence lengths. Both during the truth-in-sentencing debate and in the present day, Walker has been quick to add to his repeated espousals of clarity and certainty that the legislature’s intentions did not include an increase in sentence lengths: “truth-in-sentencing wasn’t necessarily to make sentences longer, it was to make them certain.” However, while Doyle’s proposal included his committee to examine such implementation issues, Thompson’s truth-in-sentencing proposal did not include any means for sentencing guidance. Rather, Republicans repeatedly claimed that judges would control sentences on their own. Rep. Mark Green, among others, argued that judges “who have been giving out longer sentences in order to make sure inmates serve a specific time behind bars would probably give shorter sentences” if offenders were guaranteed to serve their full terms. This was an arguably fair supposition; judges in Mississippi, for example, had reduced their sentences after that state’s truth-in-sentencing law was passed, just as Green described. But many raised doubts about the claim, noting, for instance, that Wisconsin’s elected judges would be under political pressure not to appear lenient. There is no reason to doubt that all supporters were sincere in saying that their intention was not to raise sentences, but it is also fair to point out that in the case of Thompson and the Assembly Republicans, their original proposal- by their own admission- took no steps to help ensure that would be the case.
It is interesting to note that supporters’ stated intentions had much less in common with the aforementioned concept of “expressive justice” than many reforms of the period. While expressive justice reforms such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws were directed at punishing offenders- and specifically by forcing them to spend longer terms in prison- truth-in-sentencing supporters in Wisconsin were consistent in both their explicit denials that they wanted to increase sentences and their emphasis upon the policy’s effects upon public perceptions rather than offenders. Supporters- especially Thompson- were not averse to arguing that truth-in-sentencing would have deterrent effects on offenders. But the more consistent emphasis upon credibility, coherence and public cynicism represent a reform oriented, at least in the public discourse, more towards changing public perception of the system’s operation than changing those operations to punish offenders more severely. Stated another way, one could easily argue in keeping with Anderson’s viewpoint that truth-in-sentencing emphasized symbolism over crime control, but those symbolic expressions were clearly directed less at criminals than at the general public.
Part XVIII will outline the arguments of Governor Thompson’s opponents.