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Report Shows Record Number Of Adults In Wisconsin Prisons

23,687 People In State Prisons In 2017, Up From 2.3 Percent From 2016

Prison fence
Robert Hickerson (CC)

A new report shows the number of adults in Wisconsin prisons reached a record high last year.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report Wednesday that found a record 23,687 people were incarcerated in state prisons in 2017. That’s up 2.3 percent from 2016.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years has been an overall increase, again fairly slowly, certainly nothing compared to where it was in the 1990s as the number of inmates came back into the system again,” said David Callender, Wisconsin Policy Forum’s communications director.

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While the number of inmates admitted into prison slowed between 2008 and 2012, admissions have been increasing since 2013. At the same time, inmate releases have slowed.

The report attributes the prison population growth in part to truth-in-sentencing laws, which aimed to ensure people served their entire prison sentences and ultimately changed the state’s parole system to make it stricter.

“If you violate the terms of that extended supervision at any time, even with one month remaining on your sentence, potentially you could go back to prison for that entire three-year term,” Callender said.

Last year, 36.5 percent of people admitted into prison were there because of crimeless revocation — they were in violation of their extended supervision and didn’t garner a new sentence.

David Liners is state director of WISDOM, a network of faith-based groups that champion reducing the prison population. He said the findings don’t come as a surprise.

“It’s a real trap that people wind up spending incredible amounts of time (in prison), it just gets layered on top of each other, these rule violations,” Liners said.

Liners said an easy way to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by a couple thousand people is to find alternatives to prison for individuals who break the rules of their extended supervision.

Still, another factor the report finds contributing to the rise in the prison population is an increase of inmates admitted to prison for violent crimes.

In 2017, the report finds 66 percent of inmates were serving time for violent offenses, while the percentage of inmates in jail for drug-related crimes dropped to 11.4 percent.

Reducing the prison population has turned into a campaign issue in the governor’s race. Democratic gubernatorial challenger Tony Evers has supported cutting the prison population in half, which GOP incumbent Gov. Scott Walker has labeled a threat to public safety.

The report notes the state Department of Corrections’ 2019-21 budget request projects the population will grow by another 5.7 percent by 2021. The agency wants an additional $149.4 million to handle the influx. That would bring the DOC’s total annual spending to $1.4 billion by 2021.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 to include original reporting from WPR.