Parts XIV and XV described the nationwide tough-on-crime trend of the early 1990s. This post describes the origins of its greatest impact upon Wisconsin corrections sentencing policy, truth-in-sentencing, which occurred concurrently to the deliberations of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections.
In his 1994 speech formally announcing his candidacy for a third term, Governor Thompson first placed truth-in-sentencing on the state policy agenda, stating that “violent criminals should serve the full time period” of the sentence they received. Thompson went on to make a tough on crime stance part of his campaign platform; his campaign aired commercials that showed the Governor hitting a punching bag.
Thompson’s statement was a response to a longstanding issue in the state: the unusually wide disparity in Wisconsin prisons between sentence lengths and actual time served. As early as the 1970s, criminal justice professionals had been concerned that this disparity was causing “the public [to] become increasingly cynical about sentence lengths;” with offenders sometimes being paroled at as early as 40 to 50% of the way through the sentence given, they feared that the public saw the sentences handed down by judges as irrelevant. We have seen that determinate reforms to confront the issue were rejected at the time, however; and the problem would not abate thereafter. More than a decade later DiIulio returned to the issue, calculating in “Crime and Punishment in Wisconsin” that excluding life sentences, the average time served was less that one-fifth of the original sentence given. Subsequent studies arrived at less extreme figures, but corroborated the presence of a substantial disparity.
Impetus to take concrete action on the issue was subsequently provided by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often known more simply as the Crime Bill), a federal bill which offered prison construction grants to states that required offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentence- in other words, to states that had implemented truth-in-sentencing. The bill led to an explosion in such laws. Within two years after the bill was passed, 20 states had passed laws complying with the terms of the grant; by 2002, 40 states had some form of truth-in-sentencing.
While the grant money would be a factor in forthcoming considerations of truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin, it did not compel rapid change. After his reelection, Thompson did not act on his campaign statement, choosing to appoint the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections as his response to crime and prison space issues. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Thompson’s aides admitted that the Governor “showed little enthusiasm for the issue.” As such, the first to take up the mantle Thompson introduced would instead be Democratic Attorney General- and alum of the “Felony Sentencing in Wisconsin” advisory committee- James Doyle. In October 1996, a year after he first expressed support for truth-in-sentencing, and shortly before Thompson’s Task Force would issue its report, Doyle released a fully developed truth-in-sentencing initiative.
Doyle’s justifications drew upon the threads described so far. Citing more figures on the wide disparity between sentences and time served, Doyle emphasized its effect on public views of the system, saying “such reform will build public confidence in the corrections system.” Doyle also marshaled several of the arguments propagated by the WPRI, stressing the deterrent features of his proposal, noting that “too many people…commit violent crimes while on parole,” and repeating DiIulio’s argument that prison was more cost-effective than leaving criminals on the street. To respond, Doyle proposed a truth-in-sentencing law with an 85% time-served requirement, in accord with the Crime Bill’s requirements. The law would also include a “commission to develop a plan for implementing truth-in-sentencing,” which would “review criminal penalties, sentences, and corrections resources.” In particular, Doyle saw this commission as key for developing measures to anticipate prison space needs and reforming parole and probation revocation. Finally, the proposal included a provision which would earmark one percent of the Department of Corrections budget for child abuse prevention programs.
Governor Thompson refrained from responding to Doyle’s proposal while the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections was still in action, but an aide’s dismissal of Doyle’s 85% requirement as “not real truth-in-sentencing” hinted at what was to come. When the Task Force’s rebuke of imprisonment policies was poorly received, Thompson quickly struck back with a counterproposal which upped the ante to “absolute truth-in-sentencing.” To fulfill that billing, Thompson’s proposal raised the time-served requirement to 100%- greater than all but a few truth-in-sentencing states- and abolished the parole system entirely, to be replaced by a more intensive “extended supervision” program which offenders would enter upon release from prison. The proposal ignored the other provisions of the Doyle initiative, making no mention of either a study commission or child abuse prevention.
The two visions for a new era of Wisconsin sentencing, the Task Force recommendations and truth-in-sentencing, met in Governor Thompson’s 1997 proposed budget. Truth-in-sentencing was the unsurprising victor. The Task Force’s recommendations were “largely ignored,” allotted funding only for a pilot program in Racine County. Thompson’s truth-in-sentencing proposal, meanwhile, was the budget’s headline initiative. It was now up to the state legislature to decide whether to follow through with Thompson’s choice.
The next series of posts will address the legislative history of truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin.