A survey of prisoners and an analysis of the net benefit of imprisonment in Wisconsin
By John DiIulio Jr.
This report is intended to inform the policy makers, administrators, and citizens of Wisconsin who are interested in the future of the State’s corrections policies. Part one of the report discusses the history, philosophy, and administration of Wisconsin corrections in national perspective and evaluates the recent decision to create a separate Department of Corrections. Part two of the report discusses the characteristics of Wisconsin prisoners. Part three of the report discusses the literature on estimating the net benefit of imprisonment and offers an analysis of the net benefit of imprisonment in Wisconsin. Among the key findings of this report are the following:
- Wisconsin has taken a balanced approach to corrections and now has one of the best corrections departments in the nation.
- About 54% of Wisconsin’s nearly 7,000 prisoners are White, 38% are Black, 6% are Hispanic, and 2% are American Indian.
- Excluding lifers, the average length of sentence in Wisconsin is 10.5 years, but the average length of actual confinement is under 2 years.
- When on the streets, including drug sales, Wisconsin prisoners committed an average of 1,834 crimes per year; excluding drug sales, they committed an average of 141 crimes per year. The median figures were 25.5 and 12, respectively.
- It costs about twice as much to keep Wisconsin criminals on the streets without supervision as it does to imprison them.
- Over the next decade, Wisconsin will need thousands of new prison beds, and the benefits of providing these beds will almost certainly exceed the cost of providing them.
This report is punctuated by numerous caveats and qualifications, but its basic conclusion admits no hedging: Imprisonment is a valuable corrections option from which the State cannot afford to shrink. To date, Wisconsin has struggled rather successfully with the challenges posed by its growing populations of convicted criminals. It is my hope that this report will help the State to continue to cope with these difficult challenges in the years ahead, and to sort out, in a pragmatic fashion, the contemporary complexities of crime and punishment.