Saturday, March 10, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part VIII

Part VII described the guidelines promulgated by the first Wisconsin Sentencing Commission. This post describes the Commission’s work on guidelines updates and other matters, which would narrow almost entirely to the former over time.

The Commission narrowly avoided an ignominious budgetary start. The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee rejected the Commission’s 1985 budget request reduced its funding for staff from six positions to three, leading commissioners to fear that the Commission would begin its existence without the means to fulfill its statutory responsibilities. Governor Anthony Earl supported their cause and eventually helped the Commission regain two of the three positions cut. This difficult beginning would be a harbinger of things to come, as budget politics would become a significant concern of the Commission in later years.

After devoting 1985 to promulgation of the newly official guidelines, the Committee expanded its workload to incorporate its other statutory charges. Starting in 1986, Commission staff began collecting information on felony cases for which guidelines had yet to be created, and began a statewide project to identify and evaluate alternatives to prison sentencing. The Commission issued its official “Report on Alternatives to Sentencing in Wisconsin” the following year, and also began distributing biannual newsletters on sentencing policy.

As caseloads and compliance increased, the Commission would limit its efforts in other areas in order to concentrate on guidelines work. In 1989, the Commission began comprehensive revisions to the scoresheets, incorporating the sentencing data that had been collected since the worksheets were issued so that the worksheets would remain based on all previous sentencing practice within the state. That year, the Commission also began collecting judgments of conviction on every felony case within the state in order to gather information on cases for which guidelines worksheets were not submitted.

That collection effort was only one example of what could be considered the most pervasive and notable characteristic of the Commission’s work: the unusual thoroughness and intensity by which the staff performed their tasks. Prior to its worksheet revision effort in 1988, Commission staff had traveled to every county in the state to personally obtain feedback regarding the guidelines system. Staffers would continue to make as many personal visits as possible for “compliance verification” into the 1990s, along with sending monthly compliance reports to chief judges in every district. The staffers were also meticulous data collectors; when submitted worksheets contained errors or incomplete information, an employee would immediately contact that jurisdiction by letter or telephone to seek corrections.

The Commission was even thorough in distributing its newsletters, printing 2,500 copies and sending one to every judge, district attorney, public defender, probation and parole agent, and legislator in the state. Finally, and most significantly, the Commission continued a comprehensive, “staff-intensive” approach to guidelines development similar to what Shane-DuBow had first developed with the Wisconsin Center for Public Policy. To perform its revision of the sexual assault guidelines, for instance, the Commission collected data on each of the over 1,700 sexual assault charges that had occurred in the previous twelve years, continuing to gather information on all of the dozens of variables that had been used in original development of the guidelines. By the Commission’s own estimates, it spent approximately 3.75 hours per case analyzed to develop a guideline.

Part IX discusses the budget difficulties the Commission would confront in the early 1990s.

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