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Wisconsin’s Evers faces tough sell on prison changes

MADISON, Wis. — Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers has some big ideas about how to change Wisconsin’s overcrowded prison system. The questions now are: How will he do it and will Republican legislators let him?

Outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker drew plenty of criticism over how he handled the Department of Corrections. He never visited a prison during his eight years as governor and was slow to react to abuse allegations at the state’s youth prison outside Irma. Evers is trying to draw a stark contrast with Walker, beginning with a pledge to visit the youth prison during his first week in office in January.

The rest of his objectives are ambitious. He wants to cut the state’s prison population in half, end solitary confinement and give ex-convicts more help. He hasn’t said whether he’ll start issuing pardons again after Walker refused to consider any during his tenure. Evers’ spokesman Sam Lau didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday.

One thing is all but certain: It’s going to be an uphill fight as he struggles with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

“We’re really hopeful,” said David Liners, executive director of WISDOM, a coalition of Wisconsin religious congregations working on social justice issues, including ending mass incarceration. “The fear tactics have stopped working and we can get back to saying, ‘What’s the rational thing here?’”

Evers inherits a state prison system grappling with a host of problems. In addition to abuse allegations at the youth prison, the system incarcerated a record number of adults last year and the population is expected to only keep growing.

Republicans have been pushing to build a new prison and have warned that Evers would have to release violent offenders to reduce the population by half.

Evers hasn’t released a specific plan, but he has called for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and to stop revoking convicts’ parole and extended supervision unless they commit a new crime.

Evers could make a strong push to end crimeless revocations on his own. Judges within the Department of Administration make revocation decisions based on recommendations from the Department of Corrections, and Evers will control both agencies. GOP legislators would have to sign off on eliminating mandatory minimums, however.

The governor-elect will also have to wrestle with a shortage of guards. The vacancy rate statewide was nearly 15 percent at the end of October, according to Corrections Department data.

Evers hasn’t addressed the shortage specifically. He has said he would like to restore collective bargaining rights for public workers, which might make prison jobs more attractive. Walker did away with union rights for most public workers in his signature Act 10 law in 2011. Restoring those rights would be difficult, if not impossible, to get through the Republican Legislature. GOP lawmakers overcame massive protests and public pressure to pass Act 10.

Evers also has called for ending solitary confinement, a move he could make unilaterally. He also wants to improve ex-convicts’ access to housing and jobs and bar employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal history. He could loosen eligibility for housing and job programs on his own through Corrections Department policy, but devoting more money to such programs would take legislative approval. Barring criminal history questions on job applications also would take a green-light from the Legislature.

Republican state Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly corrections committee, said the state has “some serious issues with overcrowding” and called the guard vacancies an unsustainable “crisis.” He said Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature might find common ground on ending mandatory minimums. But he doesn’t expect agreement on much else.

Republican Van Wanggaard, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said Evers sounds like he’s “all over the board” with broad proposals and will need the Legislature to accomplish his goals. He said he’s “absolutely not” in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums.

“I don’t think he’s had an opportunity to understand the gravity,” Wanggaard said. “You try to say the things (during the campaign) you think may make sense. I don’t want to lock more people up either, but in the same respect I don’t want somebody who is a serious violent offender in my house at two in the morning, either.”

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