Sunday, March 18, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XIII

Part XII recounted the formation and composition of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections. This post describes the report they released.

The result of the Task Force’s rethinking was a proposed redirection of the focus of criminal justice, from the offenders who committed the crimes to the places where they occurred. Commission of a crime, the report argued, did not take place in a vacuum; it required not only a motivated offender but a “place…suitable to the offender’s purpose.” Therefore, the removal of an offender from the place where they had committed a crime would not necessarily make that place safer. As evidence, the report cited a street corner in Milwaukee where 94 drug arrests had been made in a three-month period. Despite the removal of those offenders, the report claimed that the area remained “a center of drug trafficking and…pose[d] manifest risks to safety.” If the correctional resources that would be spent incarcerating the offenders were not making the place in which they were arrested safer, the Task Force argued, “it is worth asking whether the [money] could have been better invested to create safety there.”

Seen in this way, corrections policy needed to be developed “from the bottom up.” Therefore, maximizing the effectiveness of corrections resources per the Governor’s charge would entail programs that “applied [the resources] in particular places, at particular times, to match the particular risks posed by and to the people who live and work there.” Resources were to be primarily allocated to and deployed by individual communities; community supervision facilities, for example, would need to be “diverse and responsive to the particular uses required in particular places,” whether those requirements would regard training and education, treatment programs, basic detention, or a combination. The report also emphasized that this approach entailed drawing upon “naturally-occurring instruments of social control” in communities, by creating personal connections between corrections officials and local law enforcement, as well as community leaders, local employers and even “ordinary folks” who could help ensure active, community-based management of risks to public safety. The principles for dealing with offenders would be particularized as well. The “nature and degree of supervision and control of an offender” was to vary based on the risk of harm the individual posed; more serious offenders would be more closely supervised, and levels of supervision could change with time if the offender’s behavior suggested their level of risk had changed.

The central recommendation of the Task Force, and the embodiment of its principles, was the development of a new community supervision program. Community Confinement and Control, or CCC, would replace probation as a sentencing option for felons, and serve as a transition program between an offender’s release from prison and their placement on traditional parole supervision. CCC would provide considerably more “active” community supervision than either probation or parole; it would “merge[…] features of regular prisons with varying degrees of liberty and obligations in the community.” Offenders would undergo mandatory electronic monitoring and drug screening, and be required to participate in work, school, and/or community service programs, while agents would make considerably more contacts with the offender per month. Along with probation the report also recommended abolishing intensive sanctions to make way for CCC, but more as a matter of redundancy rather than rejection; intensive sanctions had precisely the same program features just described.

The Task Force’s recommendations were received warmly by some policymakers, although reservations were expressed that its recommendations were too far-reaching. But as sympathizer Sen. Mike Ellis noted, it was simply “the wrong time, politically” for the report’s ideas. While the Task Force was deliberating in mid-1996, two-well-publicized deaths were attributed to individuals involved with the intensive sanctions program, directing negative publicity towards many of the community supervision concepts the report was to base its proposals upon. And on a more general level, the Task Force had also run up against a shift in the prevailing political mood. Elements of the nationwide “tough on crime” movement were gaining traction among political leaders in Wisconsin, and by the time the Task Force had finished its work, its already-handicapped recommendations had to compete with another proposal already endorsed by the leading law enforcement official in the state: truth-in-sentencing.

Part XIV will describe the first proposals for truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin.

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