Friday, April 20, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XXII

Part XXI ended a series of posts on the enactment of truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin. This post begins a series on the Criminal Penalties Study Commission, the group charged with developing a new set of state sentencing guidelines to take effect under the new law, within the 18 months before it would take effect.

The CPSC has been described as a “blue-ribbon” commission, with good reason; its membership included numerous longtime leaders in Wisconsin sentencing. Walter Dickey and several members of the first Sentencing Commission served as members, and the Committee was chaired by Judge Thomas Barland, who had led the deliberations on sentencing standards as part of the WCCJ’s Standards and Goals project two decades before. Barland’s selection as chairman partially stemmed from the failures of the previous Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections; Barland, a former legislator, was told by Governor Thompson that his selection as chair came because he “understood the legislative political process.” Although Barland may have been selected with politics in mind, however, in overall membership the CPSC was more an “expert” committee of criminal justice policymakers than a political one. While the committee had only one legislator, Senator Joanne Huelsman, it included (with overlap) six judges, two former chairs of the Department of Corrections and several other leaders from within the legal community.

Act 283 gave the CPSC six charges, which the Committee chose to divide between three standing subcommittees: Code Reclassification, Sentencing Guidelines, and Extended Supervision Revocation. Members created two additional subcommittees, Education and Computer Modeling, “to address challenges which arose during the Committee’s work.” As with truth-in-sentencing, our primary focus here is on the intentions members had in developing the current Commission and guidelines system, and much of this section will again be devoted to exploring that issue. The work of the Sentencing Guidelines subcommittee is obviously most pertinent to that issue, and we shall see that the work of the Code Reclassification and Computer Modeling subcommittees will also be helpful. As the Extended Supervision Revocation and Education subcommittees are not directly relevant to our greater considerations, I will give a brief synopsis of each before we begin.

Although it was charged specifically with examining revocation procedures for the newly developed Extended Supervision (ES) program, the Extended Supervision Revocation subcommittee found it necessary to develop more general recommendations for the program before doing so. Those recommendations followed the lead of the committee’s predecessors in community corrections; its description of “what…ES should look like” was based on the strict supervision model proposed by the Intensive Sanctions review panel, and both shared many basic features with the recommendations of the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections. Like the two previous proposals, levels of supervision within ES would vary based on the level of risk offenders posed, work, educational and/or community service participation would be required, and agent caseloads were to be reduced. The subcommittee also recommended amending Act 283 to give judges the power to modify the conditions of an offender’s ES, since “the judge may not be aware of all possible supervision options available at the end of a long period of confinement.” Relatedly, a “geriatric clause” was recommended which would allow elderly offenders to petition for a modification of the terms of their sentence, to free the corrections system from suffering the increased medical costs they would incur.

Pursuant to its expressly delegated work on revocation, the committee “focused on streamlining and strengthening the process to provide better community protection.” To wit, the subcommittee recommended an expedited revocation process, the construction of “regional detention facilities” for violators, and the added option of giving offenders “confinement sanctions” in those detention facilities for violations.

As the subcommittee concerned with community corrections issues, the Extended Supervision Revocation subcommittee was also the locus for concerns from Milwaukee-area officials that judges in Milwaukee County lacked faith in the efficacy of probation supervision. The effects of the “Milwaukee Probation Problem” were borne out by statistics the Committee received from the Office of State Courts, which found that Milwaukee judges placed a significantly lower proportion of felony offenders on probation than judges in the rest of the state, presumably due to their negative view of the program. Strapped for time, neither the subcommittee nor the greater Committee was able to confront the issue. Instead, they designated it as an “issue for further study,” and made only one specific recommendation of their own, suggesting that the “positive results” of strict supervision programs in Dane and Racine Counties be applied in Milwaukee.

The Education Subcommittee stemmed from the recognition of Committee members that “educating the bench, the bar, and the public” about the “new principles and terminology” of the system “will be an important part of making truth-in-sentencing work,” especially coupled with “the short time period” between the release of the CPSC’s report and the beginning of the new system. Hence, the Education committee members were charged with developing an education plan and “acting as liaisons” with relevant actors and the public. (Notably, a focus of their presentations to judges in particular was a “considerable effort” urging them to refrain from handing down increased sentences after truth-in-sentencing took effect.) The Final Report listed the Committee’s accomplished and planned educational efforts, and also made the further recommendation that its own “office and staff remain in operation and fully funded until the new Sentencing Commission begins its work,” primarily in order to provide continued education.

Part XXIII will describe the committee’s perception of their legislative charges and their general policy priorities.

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