Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part X

Part IX described the Commission’s brush with defunding in 1993. This post describes the legislative audit imposed as a condition of their reprieve and the Commission’s questionable reaction to its results.

Developed in cooperation with Chairman Deininger, the LAB’s audit plan was to evaluate “the Commission’s execution of its statutory responsibilities; the adequacy of the Commission’s resources to fulfill those duties;” and whether the Commission’s duties could be moved to another state agency. LAB staff proceeded to conduct the audit in the fall of 1993. After examining Commission documents and budgets, interviewing Commission staff and members, judges, and interest group members; and speaking with officials in other states for suggestions on guidelines management, the audit was released in March of 1994.

The Commission interpreted the results of the audit as “generally favorable” towards its cause, with some justification. In particular, staff and members cited the LAB’s defense of the Commission as a necessary part of the guidelines system. The audit rejected contentions that the Commission could be eliminated after it finished promulgating guidelines for every felony crime, saying that revision and analysis of the guidelines would still be necessary. The audit argued that moving those duties to another agency would not be cost-effective, as additional staff would have to be hired to take on the Commission’s unique duties. Additionally, the report noted, maintaining a Commission organizationally independent of the criminal justice bureaucracy was consistent with national standards and important to maintain perceptions that the guidelines system had been objectively formulated.

Although the audit also made numerous management recommendations for the guidelines, several of which focused on scaling back their intensive guidelines analysis methods, the Commission did not see them as cause for concern. Chairman Deininger, for instance, saw the recommendations as merely “for the Commission’s discretionary use.” He did not consider them “directives” compelling the Commission to make changes, but rather “suggestions” for the committee to take into account; if the auditors had serious objections, he argued, they would have requested further testimony from Commissioners. Since they did not see themselves as “forced” to make any changes, members and staff consequently felt free to reject many of the recommendations provided. Shane-DuBow openly expressed her skepticism towards most of the audit’s management recommendations, and reiterated her contentions that the Commission’s “extreme fiscal constraints” and increase in workload left it unable to meet statutory responsibilities. There is no evidence that the Commission made any noteworthy changes to its management methods after the audit report was released.

The Commission was so confident in the supportive nature of the audit that it began formulating initiatives to increase both their budget and their statutory responsibilities. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it seems clear that the audit was probably not as favorable as the Commission thought. The audit may have defended the system, and thereby the Commission, against internal adjustment, but it cast serious doubts about whether that system as a whole was worth preserving. The audit noted that “some judges” saw completion of the guidelines worksheets as a “low priority” within their workload; moreover, “when considering which administrative issues to emphasize with their judicial colleagues, some judges stated that completion of scoresheets would not be chosen.” The audit further noted that the Commission’s methods of analysis could not show whether the guidelines actually served their statutory purpose of reducing sentencing disparity. Noting that the Commission’s standards for judges’ compliance with the sentencing ranges were lower than other states, the report suggested that staff “respond[…] to previously expressed legislative intent” by developing better analysis of sentencing variations.

The audit may have defended the Commission within the context of the guidelines system, but it also indicated that system was unimportant to members of its primary constituency and raised serious doubts as to whether they were serving their statutory purpose. Considering Governor Thompson’s office had attempted to eliminate the entire guidelines system, not just the Commission, it seems that if anything, the audit provided support for that action. And indeed, for all the Commission’s perhaps misplaced confidence, its troubles would only worsen after the audit’s release.

Part XI will describe the Commission’s second- and final- brush with defunding.

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