Part XXXI described the deadlock that ensued when the CPSC’s recommendations went to the legislature for ratification. This post describes the leigslature’s ultimate failure to break that deadlock before truth-in-sentencing began- leaving the new system without any supporting sentencing policies.
As the close of the session neared with no movement on either side, George and other Senate Democrats renewed suggestions earlier made by Assembly Democrats to delay the start date of truth-in-sentencing by several months. A few representatives had expressed doubts from the release of the CPSC report onward that there was insufficient time to educate professionals and the public on the tenets of truth-in-sentencing; senators now parroted those claims and added that the delay would provide time to reach a compromise if one was not made by the end of the session, since the legislature would not convene again until truth-in-sentencing was underway. Assembly Republicans “angrily rejected” the move, as Walker and Jensen repeated their accusations that the Senate was “too gutless” to vote on a bill. The inaction continued from there; even some Democrats pushed George to release the bill from committee from a vote on the Senate floor, but to no avail. When the adjournment date arrived, Jensen proceeded to reject the Senate’s vote to extend the session until compromise was reached. “We’ve been telling them for a week, if the Senate passes a bill, we will extend the session,” Jensen said, but “they failed to get their work done.”
With truth-in-sentencing less than a month away, two options still remained for a timely compromise. George and Chvala offered to convene the “informal conference committee” outside of session, so that it could be formally adopted upon the legislature’s return. Jensen and his fellow Assembly leaders rejected the offer, reiterating both their justifications and their attacks. “We can only assume,” Jensen stated, “that the Senate majority wants to weaken Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing law.” The Assembly majority instead chose to authorize an “extraordinary session” to pass the bill before the start date, supported by Governor Thompson, who called on the Senate to do the same and criticized their “failure to act” thus far. But the Senate would not heed those calls, as Chvala held steadfast to his demand that the informal conference committee meet first. Thompson subsequently refused to exercise the final option and exercise his own power to call such a session, referring to his previous comments that he would only do so if the two chambers could reach an agreement beforehand.
“Legislative gridlock” had carried the day, and December 31, 1999 came and went without compromise. Many in the criminal justice community expressed concerns; Professor Hammer warned that “this is going to breed confusion systemwide,” while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that judges, lawyers and prosecutors were “uneasy” about the lack of guidance they would have without the CPSC’s temporary guidelines. But at least one judge, Janine Geske, remained sanguine at the prospect of undertaking truth-in-sentencing without the CPSC’s help: “The world will go on. Judges will do the best that they can.”
Thompson attempted to break the legislative impasse in his State of the State address the next month, announcing plans to hire more parole and probation agents and develop a new drug treatment program in accord with two of Sen. George’s requests. While Sen. George praised Thompson’s plans as “real progress,” he refused to take action until a geriatric clause was added as well. Assembly Republicans accepted the Governor’s initiatives but balked at George’s request, as Rep. Walker indicated that the Governor’s proposal had not reached the crux of the issue. “Our line in the sand isn’t over any of those things [Thompson proposed],” he said, “our line in the sand with the Senate has always been on modifying sentences.”
A few days later, Senate Democrats again mirrored their actions from the original truth-in-sentencing debate. Led by Sen. Chvala, they introduced their own legislation implementing the CPSC recommendations, as part of an omnibus “mini-budget” bill, 1999 Senate Bill 357. Like 1997 SB 345, SB 357 included all of the Democratic proposals that had caused gridlock on the Assembly bill, from each of George’s funding requests to a sentence modification provision, and passed the Senate rapidly. And like SB 345 and the Democrats’ previous statements alike, their support of modification elicited claims from Rep. Jensen that they were “trying to weaken truth-in-sentencing” and a refusal on the part of the Assembly to comply. With no change in partisan control forthcoming, this time the deadlock remained. The Assembly rejected placing SB 357 on the schedule in April, while Sen. George continued his refusal to take action on AB 465. Together, those decisions foreclosed any possibility that the CPSC’s recommendations would be passed until the next legislative session- and gave no indication that they would be any more likely to pass then.
Part XXXIII will describe the contemporary and strikingly parallel saga of the Governor's Task Force to Enhance Probation.