Saturday, September 22, 2007

NJ's Not the Only State

I recommend Ben's post below on the fiscal nightmare that his former state, NJ, is having and the role poorly planned and overly hyped criminal justice policy [sic] there has played in their crisis. I would note a couple of things Ben didn't mention, both related. One, what little NJ has done to move forward on sentencing reform came with ONE STAFFMEMBER, Ben Barlyn. If you look up "yeoman's work" in a picture dictionary, you'll find a photo of Ben writing up one of the many excellent reports produced there during his tenure, one of which was mentioned in the story. Two, this "one staffmember" game is one that too many states think they can play in seriously addressing their problems. We're seeing it in too many places now--VT and CO are trying to work their new commissions with one staff person or even a half-timer. How will they pull that off? By falling back on their well-regarded but already very busy state statistical analysis centers for the staff power.

Bad, bad idea. You weaken one of the strengths you have going for you while pretending to do all you can on the new problem. Suck it up, people. If you want to do something serious, you have to get serious. One staffperson, dependent on the time and workloads of already pressed agencies, will not provide you with what you need unless you kiss off all the other vital functions those other agencies have been doing. It's just a sign that you (1) still don't have a whole clue about what you need to be doing and (2) are not really serious about getting the best possible people trained in the areas you need to come work for you. (Are you, NJ?)

But at least those states, silly and irresponsible as they are being, have someone to coordinate their Potemkin commissions. WI has just decided to stop even pretending. We've chronicled the demoralizing and disspirited comedy that has been WI sentencing policymaking, going back over a decade now and through two failed commissions. The latest commission, which I directed and left, was due to be sunsetted at the end of this year, and neither the governor nor the legislature proposed extending it, for the very good reason that the commission was clearly not going to produce significant policy recommendations despite its clear legislative mandate to do so. To the governor's credit, however, he did propose to move the commission's talented staffpeople, who produced a nationally-recognized report on robbery recidivism, a published article on judicial perceptions of alternative sentencing options, an NIJ-funded report on factors influencing judicial sentencing decisions, and a mandated report on the effect of race on sentencing, to the state Office of Justice Assistance as part of a new bureau to maintain and extend the state's data and analysis capacity for future sentencing reform efforts.

However, the state has been bogged down in a budget stalemate between the two parties, each controlling one of the houses, that pushed the proposed budget past its July 31 deadline. Only now have they been able to start compromising as it looks like state school budgets will get certified with a mandatory property tax increase that will be much higher than it would be if the budget gets passed. Among those compromises is not just the removal of the commission but also the proposal to shift the staff to OJA.

Read that again very carefully. Existing authorized positions with demonstrated accomplishment. Which will be able to provide the state the necessary data and information to allow reality-based decisionmaking as the state's prison pop problem, so bad that a couple of years ago both major state newspapers ran multi-story series on its dimensions and what will happen if not dealt with, so bad a second sentencing commission was empowered (even if it never used those powers), must be handled in the future.


This isn't really a surprise for a state that has had legislators claim there was no way of knowing that requiring all inmates to serve 100% of their sentences in 1990s would cause a prison pop problem a few years later. Or that has had judges seriously claim that they can't accept restrictions on their discretion to choose among the 6-8 sentences they always choose from for a given offense. It's "The Wisconsin Way." Actually it's not a surprise for any state, as the examples of NJ and, God knows, CA can attest.

It's actually just a statement about our failure to live up to Ben Franklin's admonition after the writing of the Constitution that the Framers had given us "a Republic, if you can keep it." We can't. Corrections sentencing, for all its potential to bankrupt and cripple us, is not even the worse problem this nation faces, and we're incapable of addressing any of them intelligently. We're showing that in case after case. And our reaction to that? Try to do better? Try to marshall the resources and knowledge necessary to bail ourselves out? No. We cut off funding for data and research so we won't know as it's happening.

We're just a bunch of two-years with better vocabularies.

[I'm obviously very p.o.'ed that WI never seems to find a floor for its silliness and that very good staffpeople are now scrambling to find positions. I promise to take a deep breath over the rest of the weekend and be my usual bright, cheery self again by the Monday evening posts. Thanks for putting up with my rant. I'll do the same for you if you want to leave comments.]

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