|Earlier this month, Wisconsin ’s Office of Justice Assistance released its annual crime report, entitled Crime in Wisconsin 2008. Overall, the report presented very good news. Statewide, crime is down in every category – murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. However, in Racine County , the statistics showed double digit increases in violent crimes, murder, and aggravated assault. Robbery rose by 6%. The only positive statistic showed that rape is down by 13%.
These are unsettling statistics that should give all residents of Racine County pause. First, because increases in crime are obviously bad news for the safety of our communities; but primarily because October marks the first month that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections will begin the newly-instituted early release program to allow even more violent offenders out of prison and on to our streets.
The early release provision, signed into law by Governor Doyle and supported by Senator John Lehman and Reps Cory Mason and Robert Turner in the most recent budget, will, according to the administration, release another 3,000 to 4,000 inmates over the next two years. While Doyle claims this will save money for the state during a budget crisis, this small short-term savings will yield a much higher long-term cost as incidents of recidivism and crime rates increase.
Proponents of soft-on-crime policies will inevitably argue that crime won’t rise because these newly-released inmates will be eligible for treatment programs that will prevent recidivism. However, to date, there have been no newly allocated resources for this expanded population. Moreover, we are in the middle of a recession that is going to present severe challenges to inmates when they try to find gainful employment. Given these two circumstances, a further rise in crime seems inevitable.
Each year the Department of Corrections has a budget of $30 million to purchase services for released inmates. These services include drug treatment and payment for room and board at halfway houses, among other things. While the latest budget does allocate another $10 million to be spent on programs that reduce recidivism and increase public safety, that money hasn’t yet been given to the Department. In order to get the money, the Department must come before the Joint Finance Committee with a plan on how they will use it. Even though they plan to begin the release of 3,000 to 4,000 more inmates next month, no plan has been brought before the committee.
Even if you’re someone who believes that treatment and community placement programs work, it seems unlikely that the Department will be able to provide the services needed for an expanded population, using the same amount of resources.
In an article written earlier this year in the Wisconsin State Journal, Linda Ketcham, executive Director of Madison Urban Ministries, which serves 700 ex-prisoners, spoke against the early release program, saying: “There aren’t the resources now…Will it overburden the shelter system? Yes. Will it release more people in the job market in an economy that is tanking? Yes.”
That’s a good point when you consider Racine County has one of the the highest unemployment rates in the state. If regular, law-abiding citizens can’t find work, it’s going to be nearly impossible for prisoners to find work. Police Chief Kurt Wahlen expressed this very concern in July in an interview with the Racine Journal Times:
“With the unemployment rate above 15 percent and no jobs available, if more inmates are released than in the past, it will be a problem, Wahlen believes. He is especially concerned about burglaries and robberies since people will be looking for ways to get money, he said. Then, he said, that can lead to assaults and potential homicides.”
There’s no doubt that the Racine Democrats who supported this provision will do everything they can to try and convince us that those released will be primarily nonviolent offenders who will never go on to perpetrate any more crimes. But the truth is they voted for a budget that allows nameless, faceless bureaucrats the power to release violent and nonviolent offenders into our communities.
When it comes to who to believe, bureaucrats and politicians, or the experts who deal with crime every day, I’m much more likely to heed the opinions of the experts. If they’re worried that crime will increase because of the expanded early release program, Wisconsin citizens - especially Racine County residents - should be, too.