Rep. Evan Goyke says Wisconsin prisons are full, and the Department of Corrections budget projects show that the State cannot afford to continue to incarcerate everyone.  Goyke wants the legislature to consider significant criminal justice reforms before the prison over-population becomes a “problem the state cannot afford to continue to ignore.”

In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Goyke said it is not possible to talk about DOC without talking about the entire criminal justice system because DOC has no discretion in the people they are required to serve or the length of time they are required to serve them. Goyke said, “Managing the DOC budget requires cooperation and reforms in earlier moments in the criminal justice system.”

Goyke explained that the United States began an incarceration phase in the 1980s in a response to an increase in crime. The result was an increase in sentencing for crimes. Goyke said in the mid-1970s Wisconsin housed approximately 2500 people; the 1990s the prison population for Wisconsin was in the mid-teens; and now Wisconsin houses around 22,000 individuals. In addition, Goyke said in the mid-1980s the punishments for criminal offenses became more severe. Goyke said it was a bipartisan effort and it continued through the 1990s. “Truth-in-sentencing has kept and guaranteed that our prison population will stay high,” Goyke said, “Because it took away the ability to parole people. The argument at the time was that judges would know that the defendant will serve the entire sentence so they’ll take that into consideration when sentencing so the average sentences will go down. It didn’t happen.” Goyke said the result is a DOC budget that is $1.2 billion a year with 22,000 people incarcerated. Goyke continued by saying that other states felt a correction budget pinch faster than Wisconsin which prompted them to make criminal justice reforms; both red and blue states.

Since being sworn into office in 2012, Goyke has seen the legislature pass around 50 laws which are either new crimes or penalty enhancers. Examples would be the new up-skirting criminal penalty which keeps up with new technology, or enhanced OWI penalties. Goyke emphasized that in that same time, no crimes have been removed or penalties lessened. Goyke said, “It is an example of the one-way street that is the criminal justice system, and largely criminal justice policy.” Goyke has decided that instead of working on the fringes he wants to be assertive on expressing the need to reform the criminal justice system.

“Hidden in the DOC budget request is the first sign that we are big trouble in Wisconsin.  This budget takes us to the edge of the cliff that other states found themselves on that inspired big reform. We are out of room.” Goyke stated. He emphasized that the State of Wisconsin pays counties to take inmates and house them in county jails at the cost of $51/day/person. (Goyke said he thought there were over 100 inmates housed at county jails. Therefore, 100 inmates at $51/day equals $1,861,500 for a full year). Goyke then discussed the increased penalties on OWI passed in the 2015-16 legislative session. He said the DOC budget estimates that in 2018 there will be an additional 450 prison inmates from the new OWI law, so DOC asked for $8.5 million to reimburse counties. In 2019, DOC estimates that number to be 1,200 prison inmates, with DOC asking for $33 million to reimburse counties. The cost to house inmates out of state is more than housing in the counties, and has been controversial in the past. Goyke admitted that he voted for the bill, and says he was wrong to do so. He said if these trends continue, highlighting that DOC expects the OWI population to continue to grow, DOC will need more room. Goyke said that leaves DOC with three options: move inmates out of state, build new prisons, or privatize the prison industry in Wisconsin. Goyke emphasized that the approximately 70 Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) programs help, but there is not enough capacity in the programs.

That brought Goyke to discuss the criminal justice system. Goyke said, “There is enormous potential for savings.” Goyke is talking with his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to work on legislation. Goyke said if he doesn’t get interest from others he will be moving forward with four separate ideas.

  • The first proposal will be the restoration of the earning of some form of earned release. Goyke said completion of programming would be conditions of early release, including such programs as drug and alcohol abuse, GED, education, or job training. Goyke explained that upon successful completion of an approved program the inmate would earn a reduction of their in-custody time. That reduced in-custody time would be added to their community supervision time.
  • The second proposal is called compassionate release. Goyke explained that there are people who will die in prison because they are sentenced to a life sentence, because they are elderly, or because they have a terminal illness. Goyke used the example of an inmate who develops stage IV cancer. Goyke said the prison has to house the inmate, pay for the treatment, and pay for their medical care.  “At a certain point, someone’s physical ability to re-offend is so diminished by age or incapacitation that they present a low risk to our community.  There should be some less secure facility for which these people can die with dignity. That might be a state run nursing home, a private semi-secure home. I’m not suggesting that they should be released without supervision, but if you have a six-month prognosis, it seems unnecessary to die in a prison.  Not to mention that it is incredibly resource intensive.”
  • The third proposal is smarter use of parole, probation, and revocation. Goyke insisted that in Wisconsin probationers can be sent back to prison for a violation of their probation or parole even if a new crime is not committed. Goyke said the majority of reincarcerations are for new offenses, but there are a couple hundred people a year that are returned to prison for doing something “that is not illegal, but is a rule violation.” Goyke explained that he believes violations of parole or probation should be punished, but incarceration is not necessary.
  • The fourth proposal is to close Lincoln Hills and convert it to a treatment center. Goyke emphasized that if the state is going to continue to address OWI there needs to be a place to give them treatment. Goyke said there are waiting lists at every state institution for treatment. In addition, Goyke said the state should build three to four small regional juvenile facilities. Goyke explained that given the reports from Lincoln Hills more counties are deciding not to send juveniles there making it more expensive to house the juveniles that are there, saying that at some point they will not financially be able to keep the center open.

Goyke said the Assembly Republicans have been receptive to talking with him about criminal justice reforms, for many different reasons. Goyke admitted that while crime in general is down, violent crimes have gone up in Milwaukee and the surrounding Milwaukee areas. Goyke said if prison as a punishment, were a deterrent, crime would be going down. Goyke said he wants to keep the state safe, but what is being done now isn’t working.