Stalemate on Crime Law A Problem For Wisconsin
By Jeff Mayers, Special to Stateline
Tough new criminal sentencing regulations go into effect in Wisconsin soon, and some experts fear the result could be miscarriages of justice and severe prison overcrowding because the legislature hasn't tailored the criminal code to fit the new rules.
The legislature had relatively little trouble passing truth-in-sentencing on bipartisan votes in the 1998 election year upon the urging of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Under truth-in-sentencing, criminals will serve every day of their sentence.
The tough part came this fall, when a Criminal Penalties Study Committee urged a massive rewrite of Wisconsin's criminal code to accompany truth-in-sentencing -- similar to revisions that took place in other truth-in sentencing states such as North Carolina. The theory is to give dangerous criminals swift and certain jail sentences while having less costly alternatives that will also provide more rehabilitation for non-violent offenders.
The move to truth-in-sentencing comes amid a state prison-building boom that has eaten up more and more general tax dollars in an effort to ease prison crowding.
Wisconsin, which already sends thousands of prisoners out of state, just opened up a "supermax" prison. It is in the process of building or expanding several others, and is on the verge of leasing or buying a privately run facility for the first time.
The Wisconsin Legislature adjourned its regular session last week without approving changes in the criminal code, highlighting conflicts between the Republican-controlled Assembly and the Democrat-run Senate. The legislature isn't due back until Jan. 25 -- after the start of truth-in-sentencing.
Unless penalties are adjusted, many politically popular mandatory sentences and "enhancers" added to the criminal code in past legislative sessions are sure to lengthen prison terms and increase prison costs over the long haul, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson warned this week.
"I'm hopeful I will be able to somehow negotiate some agreement between now and the end of the year," said Thompson, pushing for a compromise package of revised criminal penalties.
Thompson's fellow Republicans in the Assembly okayed a package of penalty revisions with several minor changes on an overwhelming bipartisan vote on Sept. 23.
But the Senate balked in an apparent attempt to delay the start of strict sentencing.
"We need to get it done right ... get (penalties) consistent, Instead of doing the responsible thing, the Assembly again is drawing a hard line in the sand." said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, an attorney who first pushed for agreement on a delay.
Reflecting concerns of criminal defense attorneys, Chvala and many of his fellow Democrats said Wisconsin wasn't really prepared for truth-in-sentencing. They contend that the state needs more prison alternatives, more agents to supervise non-violent offenders in the community and better education of the legal community.
"Come January 1, we will have enacted by default some of the toughest criminal penalties in the nation," said GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, referring to a provision in the 1998 bill that increases maximum prison terms by 50 percent. "They (the Democrats) have played a dangerous game."
Thompson is taking a personal role in trying to negotiate a compromise, and could call a special session of the legislature if the negotiations succeed, or the legislature could call itself back in to deal with the issue. But Thompson said the chances of the legislature acting on its own are between "slim and none."