Monday, June 18, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing- Part XXXI

Part XXX completed a series of posts on the recommendations of the CPSC and the debates and difficulties of their formulation. This post begins detailing the final episode of this history: the legislative gridlock that delayed implementation of those recommendations for years thereafter.

The CPSC released its final report in August 1999, four and a half months before truth-in-sentencing was to take effect. Its release triggered two immediate impacts. Firstly, legislative consideration of the report began, as Rep. Walker quickly introduced 1999 Assembly Bill 465 to codify the report’s recommendations. Secondly, Governor Thompson responded just as quickly to the report’s discussion of the Milwaukee probation problem. “Immediately” after the report’s release, Thompson formed the Governor’s Task Force to Enhance Probation. This Task Force was a continuation of the CPSC’s work on the topic, not just in subject but in personnel. Judge Barland was again to serve as chair, and four other members of the CPSC as well as both the committee’s staffers members joined him. The Task Force began meeting that fall, only a few weeks after legislators had begun considering AB 465. Those involved in both matters were on the cusp of several years of inaction.

It had taken a switch to a Republican majority in the Senate to break the impasse on the original truth-in-sentencing bill. But with the Democrats having recaptured the chamber that fall, unresolved differences reappeared, and the legislative process for the CPSC’s recommendations became all but a carbon copy of the process for the law it was intended to supplement.
AB 465, like AB 351, lifted its language directly from its parent proposal; it included the CPSC’s criminal code revisions in full, made no revisions to the worksheets, and provided the full funding and staffing recommended for the Sentencing Commission. Once again, majority Republicans pushed the bill through the chamber with as few revisions as possible. Although the Assembly Criminal Justice Committee restoring language specifically criminalizing battery to an unborn child, saying it was “political reality” that the bill would not pass without such language, the majority rebuffed attempts by Democratic representatives to include additional child abuse funding and study the impact of race on sentencing. And once again the Assembly bill stalled upon its arrival in the Senate, where it was blocked by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Gary George.

Sen. George sought several additions and modifications. He proposed adding funding for drug treatment and enhanced supervision programs, as well as to hire additional probation and parole agents and assistant district attorneys. More controversially, Sen. George also proposed an amendment that would allow judges to modify sentences after the original decision. While he sometimes spoke of it as a “geriatric clause” specifically for ill or elderly inmates, a proposal the CPSC itself had recommended, George’s proposal would allow modification for all crimes, such that adjustments could be made “if new information emerge[d].” Assembly Republicans immediately and sharply attacked the modification proposal. Although George protested that sentences could be modified upward as well as downward, Rep. Jensen claimed that Senate Democrats “want[ed] to water down truth-in-sentencing” and “make a weaker law.”
While political differences may have been the rationale for the holdup, the crux of the issue became procedural. Backed by Majority Leader Chvala, Sen. George refused to take action on AB 465 until Assembly Republicans agreed to meet in an “informal conference committee” and reach a compromise solution. Speaker Jensen refused, insisting that the Senate pass a bill before any negotiations would take place and arguing that the Senate didn’t “have the guts” to vote on purportedly weaker legislation.

As the standoff hardened, CPSC members began issuing calls for passage. Professor Hammer decried the absurdity of a debate over legislative procedure: “no one…seem[s] to disagree over the substance of the Committee’s report, only the way the Legislature should go about enacting it.” And Judge Barland, who had appeared during debate in the Assembly to note that passage was “essential,” repeatedly issued further calls for passage, touting the necessity of a more “fair and rational” system and even threatening that a lack of passage could increase sentences and “bankrupt the state.”

Part XXXII will discuss the failure of the legislature to heed those calls.

No comments: