Parts XVII and XVIII outlined the rhetorical battle lines over truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin. The next two posts will describe the related and rather complex legislative machinations that occurred between Governor Thompson’s proposal in early 1997 and its enactment in the summer of 1998.
As evidenced by the affiliations of those quoted in the previous two posts, the debate over details was divided along partisan lines. Republicans generally supported Thompson’s proposal, holding steady to the populist arguments made in favor of the policy and rejecting revisions to the original design. Democrats raised most of the concerns regarding costs and implementation. And with split partisan control in the legislature, debates over the passage of truth-in-sentencing broke down along chambers as well. While the Republican-controlled Assembly was steadfast in its support for an unmolested version of Thompson’s proposal, the Democratic-controlled Senate would be responsible for the amendments, doubts and delays.
When budget negotiations stalled in the spring of 1997, it was decided to remove truth-in-sentencing from Thompson’s budget for separate consideration. In early May, Rep. Walker and Rep. Tom Sykora introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 351, which lifted its language directly from the Governor’s proposal that had been included in the budget. In the Republican Assembly, with committee chair Walker and Speaker Scott Jensen among the proposal’s most vocal supporters, AB 351 was fast-tracked; only three weeks later, the bill sailed through the full chamber by a vote of 86 to 8. While some Assembly Democrats introduced amendments, the Thompson-allied Republican leadership was able to protect the bill from revisions. With the general principles of the bill agreed upon from the outset, few could disagree when the bill was called up for a vote.
AB 351 then stalled upon its arrival in the Senate, as senators in the Democratic majority, including Jensen’s counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, cited the concerns of cost, implementation, and sentence lengths discussed in the previous post. Senate leadership chose not to act on the bill immediately, leaving AB 351 frozen in committee. With the issue apparently tied up in partisan wrangling, Attorney General Doyle and Governor Thompson negotiated a public compromise on the differences between their original proposals. In a joint document released in June, Doyle acceded to Thompson’s 100% time served requirement and its consequent abolishment of parole, while Thompson accepted the addition of Doyle’s proposals for a committee that would review implementation issues and increases in child abuse funding.
Although Sen. Chvala promised at the time to amend to AB 351 in accordance with the compromise, that did not occur. When the Senate chose to take up the issue again in November, it ignored both AB 351 and Thompson and Doyle’s compromise and introduced another proposal, Senate Bill (SB) 345. The bill included an implementation committee- now termed a “criminal code study committee”- similar to that suggested by Doyle, charged with making recommendations regarding probation revocation procedures; the uniform classification of crimes; the creation of a Sentencing Commission to promulgate sentencing guidelines; and the development of “temporary sentencing guidelines” to be used until the Sentencing Commission promulgated its own. More controversially, SB 345 also established a prison time-served requirement of only 75%, with the other 25% to be served on community release. Once again, this elicited charges of weakness from Assembly Republican leaders. Rep. Tom Sykora, a co-sponsor of AB 351, “contended that Democrats wanted to put criminals back on the street faster.” Consequently, after SB 345 enjoyed fast-tracked passage of its own through the Senate, passing on a 28-4 vote in February 1998, Assembly leaders imitated their Senate counterparts by refusing to take action on the opposing chamber’s bill.
Part XX describes how the deadlock was broken by a sudden change in the partisan composition of the Senate.