Part XI ended with the disbanding of the first Wisconsin Sentencing Commission, which marked the close of Wisconsin’s first era of sentencing reform. This post describes the beginnings of the second, which first culminated in the appointment of Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections concordant with the Commission’s demise.
The policy problems that Shane-DuBow noted were not present during the reform debates of the early 1980s were becoming evident by the latter part of the decade. By 1990, prison populations in the state were expanding; costs were expanding correspondingly; these increases augmented the strain on state criminal justice agencies; and polls indicated that crime had become a leading concern of Wisconsin residents. These concerns were soon acknowledged by the Sentencing Commission. In the early 1990s, Commission reports began to emphasize that they could play a role in “increasing interagency cooperation” to reduce overcrowding, and that the guideline recommendations could help in “saving costly prison space” by recommending alternatives to prison. However, with the Commission committed to fulfilling statutory requirements via their intensive, resource-draining guidelines construction methods, staff did not undertake any official work dealing with cost or coordination issues.
The Commission did, however, have to deal with the first legislative response to the state’s growing problems. In 1991, the legislature created the Intensive Sanctions Program to serve as a “cost-effective” alternative to imprisonment. Electronic monitoring and participation in work, school, or community service were required, and participants would receive multiple contacts a month from agents; while the program would cost several thousand dollars per year more than parole, it would cost several thousand less than it would to imprison the offender. Presumptive cells for the program were to be placed in the guidelines grid, a legislative mandate the Commission completed in 1992.
Other than the intensive sanctions program, Wisconsin officials did not choose to develop any substantial reforms while the guidelines system was still in existence. But as the system met its demise, two visions for a new era of reform in Wisconsin sentencing quickly arose in its place.
In January 1995, the same month that he released his proposed budget eliminating the guidelines, Thompson appointed the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections to develop solutions for dealing with the state’s spiraling prison costs and populations. The Task Force’s charge was to “objectively review…sentencing options that currently exist, including their cost and effectiveness; and to make recommendations on how current corrections resources can be maximized to reduce and manage risk.” Thompson appointed Walter Dickey, a University of Wisconsin law professor and former Secretary of the Department of Corrections, as chairman. Notably, Thompson’s other appointments were weighted towards individuals from outside the criminal justice community. While the Task Force included only one judge and no District Attorneys or defense lawyers, it included four businesspeople with no experience in criminal justice policy.
Issued in December 1996, the Task Force’s final report was a self-conscious rebuke of the criminal justice status quo that proposed a sweeping reconceptualization of the state’s approach to criminal justice. The Task Force began by immediately rejecting the “conventional solutions” they saw as focused on prison policies, going so far as to say that “they assume that, if we cannot build a prison cell for everyone who deserves one, we must do without safety and accountability for them.” Dismissing prison reforms as either too expensive or too great of a threat to public safety, the Task Force saw itself as needing to “rethink” prison-focused conventional wisdom.
Part XIII will describe the content of the Task Force report.