Saturday, September 01, 2007

A History of Wisconsin Sentencing--Part XXXIII

We will finally be completing our series on the history of the first WI Sentencing Commission over this holiday weekend. We apologize for the delay. Joe Fontaine, the author has become a mover and shaker in grad student government at UW and has had a busy summer. If you’ve forgotten where we were, part XXXII finished with the WI legislature still in political deadlock over the course of its remaining sentencing reform. Part XXXIII describes the contemporary and striking parallel saga of the Governor’s Task Force to Enhance Probation. You can catch up by linking to the posts under the same title on the right.

In the meantime, the Governor’s Task Force to Enhance Probation was in the process of drafting its final report. They had begun their deliberation the previous fall by undertaking a systematic evaluation of probation procedures in Milwaukee County. Along with hearing testimony from parole and probation agents and other actors in the system, the Task Force launched a statewide survey of judges’ “attitudes regarding the current probation system,” which confirmed that Milwaukee judges in particular lacked confidence in sentencing offenders to the program; and constructed a database of probation revocation statistics for offenders in Milwaukee, to examine anecdotal complaints of high revocation rates in the county.

Through their research, the Task Force identified problems throughout the parole process in Milwaukee. Three issues in particular occupied much of the Task Force’s attention. First, the judicial survey indicated that a significant factor in their dissatisfaction with the system was “insufficient” levels of supervision. Specifically, the caseloads of probation agents were seen as too high; that is to say, agents were spread too thin to provide sufficiently consistent supervision for each individual offender. Task Force members found a related concern with high rates of agent turnover in Milwaukee, which “undermine[d] the effectiveness of probation” by forcing “more entry-level agents [to] supervise serious offenders than is desirable.” Secondly, “a recurring theme at Task Force meetings and in comments… [was] the lack of alcohol and drug treatment available for offenders placed on probation.” Task Force members noted that substance abuse was a pervasive systemic issue, citing the prevalence of drug and alcohol problems among offenders in the system, and the substantial role controlled substance violations played in revocation rates. Finally, the Task Force expressed concern over with the high rate of probation and parole absconders in Milwaukee County, and the lack of “sufficient, immediate” action taken when absconding occurred.

After identifying those issues and others, the Task Force devoted the latter part of its deliberations to seeking models for improvement from other jurisdictions. Following the CPSC’s original recommendation, members gave especial attention to the pilot programs in Dane and Racine Counties, based on the supervision principles outlined by their predecessor Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections. Members also heard testimony from individuals involved in specialized “day reporting centers” in Chicago and Milwaukee which sought to provide more consistent and individualized supervision. The Task Force also extensively researched the operation of the probation system in Minnesota. As the report notes, although the two states have “much in common” in terms of size, demographics, political environments and crime rates, Minnesota had an imprisonment rate one-third of that of Wisconsin and a probation system perceived to be much more effective.

The Task Force’s final recommendations responded to the problems they had identified by drawing upon elements of each of the above models. Probation was to be grounded in several of the principles of the Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections approach; supervision levels would be based on the risk posed by the offender; agent caseloads would be reduced; and offenders would be supervised in a more active manner. And while the Task Force expressed its reservation that the programs had not yet been officially evaluated, it recommended that “the most direct manner to enhance probation…may be to adopt in Milwaukee County the supervision projects currently in place in Dane and Racine Counties.” The Committee also recommended the increased incorporation of day reporting centers into the system.

To confront substance abuse issues, “all Task Force members endorsed the goal of meeting 100% of the alcohol and drug treatment needs of the prison system” via increased funding and changes in system management. As reinforcement, the Task Force noted that Minnesota’s system neared that figure. The Task Force also recommended adopting several other features of the Minnesota system, such as creating “criminal justice councils” which allowed all actors in the system “a sense of ownership in and control over the administration of probation” and studying the system’s increased emphasis on restorative justice approaches. The Task Force also recommended that efforts to catch absconders receive increased funding and attention.

The Task Force completed its report in the summer of 2000. Five years later, their work has still not been released to the public. The Thompson administration first decided to delay official acceptance and release of the report until after Labor Day, to “attract more attention.” At that point, acceptance was further delayed until after the 2000 presidential election, as Thompson “was said to be too busy campaigning” for candidate George W. Bush. And when Bush subsequently appointed Thompson to the cabinet after his election, with no action yet taken on the report, it appears any hope of its release died with the Governor’s departure. Judge Barland would later say that Thompson’s successor, Gov. Scott McCallum, “shelved” the report and rebuffed its recommendations by cutting the number of parole and probation agents statewide.

The Task Force report was held up by gubernatorial inaction rather than legislative gridlock, but the end result was the same. At the end of 2000, Wisconsin sentencing reform was at a complete standstill.

On Monday we'll finish the series with the final resolution of the policy dispute and the launching of WI's second effort at a sentencing commission.

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