Unintended Consequences

Revoking supervision for ex-offenders accused of new crimes would cost taxpayers without improving public safety

By PATRICK HUGHES | February 20, 2020

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included analysis of the bill as amended by the Assembly. Since then, the Senate voted to remove the amended language and the Assembly concurred. This version reflects those changes.)

A bill moving through the Legislature would require the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) to recommend re-incarcerating ex-offenders under community supervision if they have been charged with a crime. This one-size-fits-all revocation policy would substantially change how the department supervises its offenders and restrict its ability to manage offender behavior through short-term holds and sanctions. The resulting increase in revocation hearings and incarcerations could impose significant costs to taxpayers without evidence that it will increase public safety.

Research conducted by UW Madison Law School Professor Cecelia Klingele and published by the Badger Institute reveals the complex reality of community supervision and revocation. Klingele examined 189 cases of individuals on supervision who had been revoked in late 2016. She found that a number of factors contributed to revocation and concluded that “every revocation is part of a distinct story, involving different facts, personalities and contexts that make it difficult to offer any easy fix or singular solution…”

Klingele’s research shows that community supervision is a complex process that requires probation and parole agents, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and court officials to make coordinated decisions based upon the circumstances of each case. An overwhelming majority of the revoked offenders in the study had alcohol or drug abuse issues that contributed to their revocation. The report also showed that most offenders who get revoked tend to do so within the first three years of their supervision.

This bill advancing through the Legislature presents logistical issues because it requires the Department to recommend a revocation when charges are filed, not when a conviction is secured. Current law allows the DOC to delay revocation while an offender is in jail or on bail while awaiting the outcome of the new criminal proceeding. Under this bill, revocation must be requested when charges are filed. If revocation is approved, the offender would return to state prison while awaiting trial on the new charges. This would require the DOC to transport the offender to court appearances or contract with local jails to hold the offender pending completion of the case.

The Department of Corrections estimates that this bill will result in an additional 4,673 inmates at an annual cost of approximately $156 million. The estimate made assumptions about the likelihood of a revocation recommendation being approved, the length of incarceration following revocation and the number of offenders being charged with new crimes. The estimate does not evaluate how this bill would change prosecutor decision-making or whether it would deter criminal behavior by offenders

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the DOC is overestimating the impact and that only 1,000 net new inmates will result from this approach. The Legislative Audit Bureau has determined that each prisoner costs the state $101.16 per day; that means an increase of 1,000 new inmates would cost taxpayers an additional $36.9 million per year. If DOC uses the cheaper method of contracted beds and can find 1,000 available beds in county jails at $51.50 per day (which is unlikely), the cost would be $18.8 million per year.

The impulse to find new methods to hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit is understandable, but this kind of indiscriminate legislation is ill-advised. The strict requirements of this bill will make it difficult to avoid negative outcomes because of the unpredictable circumstances of supervision and the criminal justice system. A better approach would be to spend additional resources on providing drug and alcohol treatment and pathways to jobs, concentrating probation and parole agent resources on high risk offenders and providing effective oversight, guidance and funding to prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.

If lawmakers are genuinely concerned about issues related to revocation, they should start by creating a system that generates regularly reported, high-quality data. The state currently has no idea how often those on community supervision violate the rules of supervision, are convicted of a new crime, are charged with a new crime, are revoked for criminal behavior or fail to meet with their agents. We don’t even know what kind of crimes are being committed by offenders on supervision.

Wisconsin needs a system where state agencies, local law enforcement, the courts and prosecutors collect and share data on the criminal justice system so that policymakers and the public can hold them accountable and make informed decisions. A robust data collection bill would allow lawmakers to assess whether criminal justice policies are having the desired impact and address legitimate threats to public safety.

Patrick Hughes is a Badger Institute corrections consultant. He served as assistant deputy secretary and division administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and as a senior policy advisor to Gov. Scott Walker. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are acknowledged.