Two studies look at Wisconsin’s complex community corrections system and why many on supervision are failing
Half of the 23,500 Wisconsinites being held in our prisons today will be out on the streets within two years. All of them will be placed under the supervision of a state Department of Corrections agent tasked with helping them successfully re-enter their communities, re-engage with their families and get jobs.
Far too many will end up back in a cell instead. Almost 40% of those released from prison are typically reincarcerated within three years — a major reason the state is discussing building a new $400 million prison. Far too many other former prisoners remain free but become dependent on the state and taxpayers in other ways.
Three years ago, we at the Badger Institute set out to discover why so many former inmates — and so many of the Wisconsinites placed on probation by judges every year
— fail. This is an enormously consequential question. There are 65,000 Wisconsinites outside of prison but under the supervision
of DOC at any given time. We spend $216 million a year on community corrections. The widespread failure of former inmates to stay out means too many children don’t have engaged fathers and too many businesses don’t have enough workers.
We wanted to know whose supervision is being revoked, under what circumstances and how the system of community corrections can operate more effectively.
Fortunately, the University of Wisconsin Law School is home to one of the nation’s foremost experts in this area, Professor Cecelia Klingele. Working independently but with some Badger Institute assistance in securing records, she thoroughly examined 189 cases from late 2016 in which supervision was revoked.
A few underlying themes emerged: An overwhelming majority (81%) of the individuals had a substance abuse problem that contributed to their revocation; agents have few options to impose meaningful sanctions other than imprisonment; and one of the top non-criminal violations that leads to revocation is simple failure to report to an agent.
Perhaps the most important takeaway, however, is that Wisconsin has unusually long maximum terms of supervision. Many states and the federal government cap lengths of
probation and extended supervision, a period of community supervision after a prison sentence, between three and five years — much shorter than the possible maximum term in Wisconsin. In fact, state law requires extended supervision to equal at least 25% of the total period of initial confinement. In the Badger State, there are ex-inmates under expensive state oversight for decades.
There is little evidence that society benefits from such lengthy periods of supervision. Over 90% of revocations in cases studied by Klingele occurred within the first two years of supervision, suggesting overly lengthy terms are an unnecessary burden on those under supervision, agents and taxpayers.
After reading Klingele’s report, the Badger Institute independently partnered with Court Data Technologies to examine the lengths
of all 2018 felony supervision sentences in Wisconsin, a total of 21,550 cases. Defendants in over 13,000 of those cases were placed on supervision for more than two years. Over 4,500 were placed on supervision for more than three years — and that’s just from 2018.
The state, we think readers will conclude after reading both pieces in this report, should at a minimum take a closer look at the substantial costs and minimal benefits of long periods of supervision.
Revocation is often justified and necessary, and we should avoid overly simplistic initiatives to, for instance, eradicate all “crimeless” revocations. Still, the system is ripe for scrutiny and reform. We hope Professor Klingele’s findings and our separate, independent analysis will assist legislators and the array of groups and citizens seeking common-sense reforms that save money, protect victims, bolster the workforce and stabilize communities.