Part XIV described the national trend towards getting tough on crime in the 1980s and early 1990s. This post describes the role of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in developing the theoretical and quantitative foundation for such policies.
Although observers such as Anderson saw such population increases as byproducts of symbolically focused reforms, studies also arose supporting the imprisonment boom. A Wisconsin organization was at the center of this effort; the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), one of the best-funded conservative think tanks in the country, would issue a series of reports attacking the current system in the state and supporting increased imprisonment as effective in controlling both costs and crime. In 1990, nationally recognized policy analyst John DiIulio began the series with “Crime and Punishment in Wisconsin,” which claimed, based on analysis of a sample of Wisconsin prison inmates, that prison was a highly cost-effective means of crime control. According to DiIulio, it costed Wisconsin approximately “twice as much to keep Wisconsin criminals on the streets without supervision as it [did] to imprison them,” for the estimated social costs of the crimes they would commit per year were greater than the cost of a prison bed. In short, prisons prevented crime through incapacitation; a criminal in jail would quite simply be unable to commit crimes elsewhere. DiIulio thus issued a call for increased prison construction to accompany tough on crime policies: “over the next decades, Wisconsin will need thousands of new prison beds, and the benefits of providing those beds will almost certainly exceed the cost of providing them.”
DiIulio’s conclusions regarding incapacitation and increased prison construction would be repeated by other tough on crime proponents, perhaps most prominently Attorney General William Barr at the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, the WPRI turned its attention to community corrections issues, issuing complementary reports on parole and probation in the summer of 1992. While “Probation in Wisconsin” was only a self-described preliminary work, George Mitchell’s “Parole in Wisconsin” sharply attacked its subject as “a threat to public safety.” According to Mitchell’s analyses, the majority of parolees in Wisconsin were violent criminals, habitual criminals, or both, clear evidence that rehabilitative approaches within corrections were “not working.” His solution was the same as DiIulio’s: “more offenders should be kept in prison.” Despite the “myth” of soaring incarceration costs, Mitchell argued, construction of new prisons could deal with the increased population in a cost-effective manner.
After a few years of inaction, the demise of the Wisconsin guidelines triggered a resumption of the WPRI’s work on sentencing issues. In August 1995, Mitchell issued “Prison Works,” which in turn corroborated a thesis of Barr’s: thanks to incapacitation, there was a “clear correlation” between “more use of prisons and less crime” over the past several decades. Mitchell also rehashed his earlier arguments against parole; parolees were such a source of recidivism, he claimed, that it was “probable” that increased parole would actually increase crime. The president of WPRI used the report to repeat the call for increased prison construction, saying that “without additional prison space, we will definitely be creating more Wisconsin victims.”
Early the next year, Mitchell and DiIulio teamed up to expand upon Mitchell’s previous arguments against parole. In “Who Really Goes to Prison in Wisconsin?,” they argued that 90% of prison inmates recidivated, most by violating probation or parole; and that even more inmates, 91%, had a violent crime in their criminal record. Attacking another “myth,” that many inmates were first-time, nonviolent offenders, Mitchell and DiIulio used their statistics as another basis of support for increased incarceration. Although many offenders were nearing parole release, those offenders were violent, hardened individuals who “pose a threat and deserve to be incarcerated.” Later that year--indeed, the same month as he issued his dissent from the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections, contending that incapacitation in prison was a more “proven” way to reduce crime than CCC--Mitchell expanded on the WPRI’s repeated arguments for increased prison construction, arguing that private prisons could provide cost savings with “essentially no risk” to the state.
The WPRI’s work has been criticized for sloppy and biased methodology, and is only indirectly related to the truth-in-sentencing reforms Wisconsin was to undertake. However, these reports are useful here for their status as both symptom of and contributor towards a shift in the political groundwork on crime issues. The WPRI reports indicated a continued shift away from rehabilitation as the goal of criminal justice policy and towards incapacitation and deterrence. This shift was fueled in turn by the more negative view of offenders, as hardened, violent criminals, that the WPRI reports sought to establish, a view which was also used to discredit parole and other community release programs. As already noted, the latter argument would soon be supplemented by the controversies over intensive sanctions. Finally, whether accurate or not, the WPRI’s arguments constructed a view of prison as compatible with both cost control and crime control, lending credibility to those who wished to make a practical case for tough on crime proposals. The WPRI’s reports did not lead directly to truth-in-sentencing, but the arguments and assumptions of their reports would be important facets of the rhetorical case at its foundation.
Part XVI will describe the origins of truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin.