Monday, April 02, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XVIII

Part XVII addressed the rhetorical strategies used by supporters of Governor Thompson’s truth-in-sentencing proposal. This post discusses the rhetoric of its opponents- which, it is important to note, was generally not associated with opposition to truth-in-sentencing in principle.

Critics of Thompson’s truth-in-sentencing proposal- among them Senators Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), Gary George (D-Milwaukee), and Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee), and Rep. Rebecca Young (D-Madison)- cast themselves as the responsible policymakers in the debate. Along with criticizing Thompson’s proposal as overly symbolic, various among the critics raised concerns regarding implementation of the law, especially of the potential cost and population strains such reform could place upon the system.

Politically, though, the approach of Thompson’s supporters left these critics in a difficult spot. By setting an emphasis on the criminal justice message, supporters narrowed the terms of debate to those on which it was difficult to disagree, either substantively or politically. Thus, many of the critics of Thompson’s proposal still agreed with the perspectives emphasized by those they criticized. Sen. Burke, a former prosecutor, was unequivocal in stating that “the sentence the offender goes in with at the front end should reflect how much he served when he gets out.'' Sen. Chvala even claimed to have suggested truth-in-sentencing before Thompson did, in his own 1994 gubernatorial campaign. But with Republican supporters limiting their arguments to those facets of the issue, Burke, Chvala and their counterparts were nevertheless forced, in expressing additional reservations, to take upon basically an opposition role to Thompson’s proposal.

Their criticism focused on cost and sentence lengths; in both cases, they argued, the Thompson proposal was irresponsible. Perhaps the most frequent refrain was that truth-in-sentencing would “break the bank;” by increasing prison populations, the bill would drive up corrections costs to unreasonable levels, not only by increasing inmate costs but by forcing the state to spend millions on building new prisons (an argument to which supporters would often respond by marshaling the arguments of the WPRI). Depending on the perspective, this was a problem of either efficiency or priority. Some, such as Rep. Young, took a perspective similar to the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections in attacking investment in prisons as an ineffective method to increase public safety and reduce crime. Others bemoaned that with passage, the state could soon spend more on corrections than on the university system.

This frustration over finances was only exacerbated by the fact that the bill did not provide an estimate of its potential cost. Proponents noted that accurate cost estimates would be impossible to make, since it could not be predicted with any certainty whether or how judges might change their sentences. But critics saw passing the law without considering its cost as “absurd” and “outrageous.” According to Sen. Fred Risser, passing such substantial reform without knowledge of cost was “taking an extraordinary chance with the taxpayer’s money.”

Critics were similarly frustrated over the approach towards sentences. Though they argued that they did not seek to increase prison terms, supporters in the Assembly did raise maximum prison terms to include Thompson’s proposed extended supervision program. Critics nevertheless criticized their actions as “pandering” to public demands for higher sentences; Sen. Burke accused Republican supporters as having “a bad case of penalty envy.” Sen. Chvala also connected the issue to the lack of consideration for both cost and judicial sentencing guidance. Supporters were “really rolling the dice,” he said, in passing the law without “restructur[ing] sentences” beforehand. They risked “enormous new prison costs,” and would have to rely on future legislatures to take the necessary steps to reduce sentences.

As many critics continued to support the concept of truth-in-sentencing, the goal was simply to make sure the law would be developed “in a well thought-out way.” Sen. Kim Plache (D-Racine), inspired to make cost considerations a general principle, introduced an amendment requiring that an official cost estimate for all crime bills be obtained before they could be debated. Considering the concerns over cost, she said, the legislature should “have at least some idea” of truth-in-sentencing’s impact. To confront the sentence length issue, meanwhile, critics emphasized their support for the implementation committee proposed by Doyle. They would also confront both, as we shall see, in their proposal to reduce time-served requirements below Thompson’s “absolute” levels.

Republican supporters responded by holding steadfast, procedurally and rhetorically. Sen. Plache’s bill was narrowly defeated on a party-line vote, and Rep. Jensen said he would refuse to consider any new Senate bills that did not stem from Thompson’s original proposal. Likewise, they stuck to their populist arguments for support; Rep. Jensen dismissed cost increases, for instance, as simply “a price I’m willing to pay for the public’s safety.” Indeed, Jensen and other supporters frequently responded by going on the attack, criticizing doubters as weak on crime and attempting to marginalize their criticism as outright opposition. Rep. Jensen later characterized a Senate bill with some of critics’ proposed changes as indicating that they did “not want this bill to pass.”

Despite the broad agreement over the general tenets of TIS, thus, these partisan arguments made the debate over details as acrimonious as any argument over the policy itself. As we turn to the legislative history of truth-in-sentencing, we will see that those details were still enough to cause delay and deadlock.

Part XIX will begin a series of posts on the legislative history of truth-in-sentencing.

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