Thursday, March 15, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XI

Part X discussed the somewhat critical legislative audit received by the first Wisconsin Sentencing Commission, conducted subsequent to a 1993 gubernatorial proposal to disband it. This post describes the Governor’s similar proposal in 1995, and the Commission’s unsuccessful efforts to prevent their demise again.

Later in 1994, the Department of Administration requested that the Commission undertake significant budget cuts for its next biennial request: a reduction of 5% for fiscal year 1996, and of 10% for 1997. As in previous years, Shane-DuBow protested the cuts to the top of the department, again arguing that the current budget was entirely devoted to meeting statutory responsibilities. Also as in previous years, her protests did not meet with success, and the Commission submitted a budget proposal that included the reductions.

As late as their January 1995 meeting the Commission continued to plan ahead, its members apparently unaware that the meeting would be their last. Shane-DuBow was unanimously reappointed for a third five-year term as executive director, and much of the meeting was spent discussing the development of proposed legislation to increase the Commission’s statutory responsibilities (which they hoped would compel budget increases in turn). But only weeks afterward, the hammer dropped. Governor Thompson’s proposed budget repeated its actions of 1993, eliminating the Commission’s funding and proposing full repeal of the guidelines. The legislature would not interfere a second time; on July 26, 1995, 1995 Wisconsin Act 27 officially abolished both the Commission and the guidelines.

Although we lack any official or authoritative explanations for the legislature’s failure to preserve the Commission and its guidelines, the history discussed to date suggests several factors that may have contributed to its demise. The LAB’s criticisms of the guidelines may have provided ammunition to justify elimination. Moreover, the Commission’s efforts to lobby for survival may have been handicapped by the departure of Rep. Deininger as chairman; it is possible that the Commission partly owed its survival two years beforehand to having a well-connected legislator as its leading advocate. According to Greene (1996), some observers also believed personal friction had frayed the Commission’s support among other policymakers, relaying claims that “commission staff had difficulty working with some key actors in important agencies.”

The most likely explanation, however, was probably that of Commissioner Michael McCann’s: “it was just part of the state’s budget crunch.” In an effort to reduce local property taxes, Governor Thompson had added a billion dollars in local school expenditures to his proposed budget, which necessitated substantial cuts elsewhere to bring the proposal into balance. It appears that this gave the governor’s office a justification to do what they had tried once already: among those proposed cuts was the elimination of all state commissions that were not revenue-producing, similar to their proposal in 1993. In short, then, it seems most accurate to say that the Commission was not so much individually targeted for elimination as washed away in a larger budgetary wave. That said, one could argue, based on the audit’s reports of Commission’s inability to cultivate judicial support and prove its success in reducing disparity, that the Commission had left itself politically vulnerable regardless.

Commission staff, we have seen, did not feel that way. “Unfairly Sentenced” T-shirts in hand, they had already cleaned out their offices in the July heat and closed the book on the first era of Wisconsin sentencing reform. As they left, however, the stirrings of what would become the second era of reform were already becoming apparent.

In an unfortunate coda, the Commission’s comprehensive sentencing databases were lost upon its demise. Despite the requests of the state archives to save a computer for archival purposes, the Commission returned all of its computer hard drives to the state’s official stock, and transferred its databases to only a tape backup system for which archivists did not have the software or hardware to make recovery efforts. “Because of poor management and lack of cooperation,” the State Historical Society would later complain, “Wisconsin [lost] access to two electronic databases with long term value.”

Part XII will discuss the first policy effort of the second era of state sentencing reform, the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections.

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