Friday, April 13, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XX

Part XIX described the deadlock over truth-in-sentencing, between competing bills passed by the Republican-controlled Assembly and the Democratic-controlled Senate. This post describes how change in control of the Senate broke the impasse and paved the way for enactment.

Throughout this period of deadlock, a series of events continued to keep crime and truth-in-sentencing in the public eye- and all highlighted the early-release issues which the design of truth-in-sentencing would confront. In August 1997, an offender on intensive sanctions committed a double homicide in Milwaukee, the third murder committed by a member of the program in under a year. Attorney General Doyle immediately called for an end to the intensive sanctions program; Governor Thompson responded by appointing a review panel and emphasizing the need for more prison space to incapacitate violent offenders. The review panel would issue its report in February 1998, calling for a “strict supervision model” which would provide “enhancements” to the current system’s supervision levels and place greater restrictions on eligibility for the program.

Early in 1998, shortly before the Senate passed SB 345, Gerald Turner, a notorious convicted murderer and sex offender, was paroled after reaching the mandatory release date of his prison term. Thompson and other Republican supporters of truth-in-sentencing turned the case to their advantage. Noting that Turner would still be in jail if required to serve his full term, Thompson cited him as “the best example yet” for the passage of a truth-in-sentencing law. Other Republicans used the opportunity to explicitly attack Democrats for not yet passing a bill, again calling the Senate majority “weak on crime.”

Only a month and a half later, as opposing bills languished in opposing houses, yet another event generated negative publicity for community releases. In the course of conducting another study on disparities between sentence lengths and time served, the Wisconsin State Journal found a connection between a decrease in time served and a substantial increase in parole rates under the current parole board commissioner, John Husz. Husz quickly admitted to accusations that he had taken prison overcrowding into account in granting paroles, without legislative or executive approval, resigning shortly thereafter. Many truth-in-sentencing supporters not only assailed Husz but again tied the two issues together; according to Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), passage of truth-in-sentencing would “answer[…] a lot of what we see” in regard to the parole scandal.

Notably, each of these successive events highlighted the concerns of public safety and early release raised by supporters of truth-in-sentencing, rather than the cost or population concerns raised by doubters; especially so in Husz’s case, where consideration for overcrowding took on a negative cast. However, the real break in the political impasse came in April 1998, when Republicans regained control of the Senate in a special election. Almost immediately, the Assembly sent AB 351 back to the Senate, where it was now fast-tracked by the new Republican leadership for consideration.

Following the terms of Doyle and Thompson’s compromise, the Senate amended AB 351 to add both an implementation committee, now called the Criminal Penalties Study Committee (or CPSC), and Doyle’s child abuse provision, but did not change the 100% time-served requirement originally passed by the Assembly. The charges for the CPSC were identical to those of the “criminal code study committee” in SB 345, except for one small but significant change; rather than developing “temporary sentencing guidelines,” the committee was now to develop “temporary advisory sentencing guidelines." It is unclear whom or what prompted this change; all that can be noted is that the amendment was introduced by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Regardless, the Senate passed the amended bill by a 28-4 vote in May, and the Assembly concurred in the changes within a week.

On June 16, 1998, Governor Thompson signed AB 351 into law as 1997 Wisconsin Act 283 (hereafter Act 283), proclaiming that it was “not a good day for the bad guys in Wisconsin.” Thompson’s stroke of the pen did not, however, bring truth-in-sentencing into effect. That would not occur until a year and a half later, on December 31, 1999. In the interim, the newly created Criminal Penalties Study Committee (or CPSC) was to design the features of the sentencing system that would accompany it.

Part XXI draws on the last several posts to draw conclusions about the legislative intent underlying Act 283.

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