Racine County Eye is kicking off a five-part series about the rise of revocation-only prison admissions in the Wisconsin corrections system. Each week we’ll roll out a new story. This week we’ll look at why this is an emerging issue. We’ll also introduce you to three people are impacted by the trend. In the fifth week, we’ll look at how some states are choosing to end this practice and what results they’ve seen.

A debate has ensued for months in the state Legislature over who goes to prison and how to pay for it. Republican state lawmakers lobbied for crime bill AB 805, which would allow more people to be placed back into incarceration for breaking the rules of their supervision. Democrats are pushing for bill AB 830 and AB831, which would reduce incarceration through incentives, increase services and restrict who goes to jail.

Both bills tackle the issue of revocation-only prison admissions–that is, revoking parole or probation and sending a person back to jail or prison for violating the terms of their release–which make up about 40 percent of all new prison admissions. But they did so in different ways.

The bill proposed by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) would have changed the rules around revocations, making it mandatory for those under supervised release to be reincarcerated if they were accused of committing a new crime while they were on supervised release. Rep. Evan Goyke’s (D-Milwaukee) bill intends to address the root causes of revocation and make it more difficult to revoke those who don’t commit a new crime, but who may have violated the terms of the inmate’s release from a prior conviction. A person who violates those rules can be sent back to prison without having been convicted of a new crime. When that happens, it’s called a revocation-only admission.

The issue is at an impasse. Governor Tony Evers vetoed Sanfelippo’s bill last week. Goyke’s bill hasn’t been taken up for a vote.

Still, revocation-only prison admissions are a growing problem. With an overcrowded prison system that operates at 133 percent of capacity, revocation-only admissions make up about 40 percent of those admissions, costing taxpayers $1.3 billion a year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

How did Wisconsin’s prison population get so big

Over the past 20 years, the Wisconsin prison population has ballooned since state legislators enacted the Truth In Sentencing laws.

Wisconsin prison population by admission type from 2000 to 2018.
Source: Wisconsin Department of Corrections

That law allowed the Wisconsin Department of Corrections staff to revoke a person’s conditional release from prison or a stayed sentence for those on probation if that person violated the conditions of their release. 

It’s also important to note that a person admitted to prison through revocation also can be charged and sentenced with a new crime while they are in prison. The DOC isn’t always able to track that data, said Anna Neal, spokesperson for the DOC.

“If someone is admitted to prison for a revocation and does not have a new sentence at that time, but then is later charged and convicted, we are sometimes able to track this,” she said. “However, because a charge and conviction can come much later than the admission for the revocation, we are not always able to connect the revocation admission to the later conviction.”

Still, Wisconsin locked up 23,755 people in 2018, and the number is expected to reach 24,350 by the end of 2021, according to the 2019-2021 budget. Of that, 8,774, or about 37 percent, were revoked for rule violations. That represents about $289 million — or 22 percent — of the $1.3 billion the state spends per year on corrections.

SOURCE: Wisconsin Department of Corrections
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Crime rate didn’t cause a rise in the prison population, researchers say

Researchers from several studies indicate that the increased prison population is not the result of an increase in crime, but rather policy choices, according to the report by the Columbia University Justice Lab.

The property crime rate in Wisconsin was 27 percent lower than the national average in 2017 and has decreased since 2013. The violent crime rate was also 21 percent lower than the national average but has increased slightly in recent years, the report says.

African-Americans are also disproportionately placed under supervision and reincarcerated for supervision violations, according to the Department of Corrections. In Racine County, the numbers bear this out. From 2000 through 2018, 2,338 — or 60 percent — of all revocation-only admissions were black, according to the DOC.

The report points out that this issue is a symptom of a larger, more systemic problem involving employment, wages, lack of mental health, drug use and lack of education. These issues disproportionately affect black people.

A study by the Badger Institute framed the problem differently.

“The widespread failure of former inmates to stay out means too many children don’t have engaged fathers and too many businesses don’t have enough workers,” wrote Mike Nichols, president of the Badger Institute.

Lawmakers clash over who goes to prison

State Republican lawmakers — with a few exceptions — passed several bills packaged together called the “Tougher on Crime” bills on February 20, but Governor Tony Evers vetoed the package Friday.

The Republican plan would have increased the prison headcount by 1,599 the first year. It also came with a hefty price tag that would have added more than $200 million to the $1.3 billion that the state spends on corrections. The bill also would have required the state to build a new prison, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

In a veto message, Evers said he considered the bill an “unfunded mandate on the Department of Corrections” that moved the state in the “wrong direction on criminal justice reform.” 

“Investing in evidence-based programming that addresses barriers to re-entry, enhances educational and vocational opportunities for returning citizens, and provides treatment for mental health and substance use issues has shown to be an effective way to reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money while improving public safety,” Evers wrote.

In a statement issued Friday, House Speaker Robin Vos called Evers’ priorities “misplaced.”

“Governor Evers refuses to hold criminals accountable to please his liberal ‘let them out of jail’ backers. His actions today clearly show how far left he is compared to the general public who want to live in safe neighborhoods,” Vos said.

Where things stand on Democratic bills

From a Legislative standpoint, there’s a balancing act that needs to be achieved for the Democrats — who don’t control the Senate or the Assembly — to make any type of headway.

Goyke reintroduced his bill in January, but it has yet to be taken up for a vote.

Goyke’s bill would slow down the number of revocation-only admissions and would limit their time served depending on the seriousness of the rule violation. It wouldn’t apply to those who don’t show up to meet their probation agent after so many missed appointments or commit a new crime. Another bill offers an earned early-release program for those who complete an employment program that would shorten their time on supervision.

During a public hearing in February, Goyke talked about the intent of the bill limiting the time served for people who violated those conditions of their release. The bill would not apply to those who violated a no-contact order, absconded or had repeated non-criminal violations.

“This bill does not apply to individuals required to report as a registered sex offender, nor would it change the power of the DOC to revoke an individual’s supervision if there is an allegation of new criminal conduct,” Goyke said. “Lastly, the bill requires the DOC to report annually on the success of these programs and to reinvest the savings into expanded capacity in treatment alternative programs.”

In an interview with the Racine County Eye, Vos said he doesn’t buy the idea that people locked up on revocation-only offenses did nothing to get there and that they are not necessarily crimeless. It depends on how you define the term, he said. 

Further, he argues that people who break the rules have a higher chance of going back to prison on a much longer sentence. If a person convicted of drug-related crime has a supervision rule that prohibits them from being in a tavern and they go into a tavern, then there is a “higher chance of them to recidivate,” he said.

Vos also would be open to seeing the revocation-only admissions used “a little smarter,” especially when people don’t show up to meet their probation and parole officer.

“What if somebody is supposed to be there and they don’t show up three times in a row? Well, they’re obviously flouting the system, and you gotta have some penalty to get them back in line,” he said.

“So I feel like we could maybe be a little smarter and how we use it. But I also don’t want to exaggerate it,” Vos said.

In the meantime, the Department of Community Corrections is working to develop “recommendations regarding internal changes that would further align the process with criminal justice reform initiatives,” Neal said.

What is a revocation-only prison admission?

When someone is placed on supervision through parole or extended supervision after being in prison or put on probation, they must follow 18 rules and may be assigned more depending on the type of crime they have been convicted of. This can range from meeting with a probation agent to how much money you can carry to seeking permission from your agent before accepting a job.

A person who violates those rules can be sent to prison without having been convicted of a new crime. When that happens, it’s called a revocation-only admission.


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By the numbers

How many people did Wisconsin reincarcerate for rule violations in 2018? How much does that cost Wisconsin Taxpayers?

Number of people incarcerated adults

23,755

Annual cost per inmate

$33,000

Number of people incarcerated for revocation-only in the Wisconsin prison system

8,774*

Annual spending for revocation-only inmates

$263 million

*According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the number of people reincarcerated under revocation-only admissions may be “overrepresented, as further investigations of revocations frequently result in new sentences at a later date.

Further, revocations with a new sentence are excluded from the cumulative population because current data limitations cannot identify whether the type of offense is for the original sentence that led to revocation or the new offense that led to a new sentence.”

SOURCE: Wisconsin Department of Corrections


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A revocation revealed: March 11

Kim Donald, revocation, Wisconsin
Kim Donald

After a revocation: March 17

Corey Prince

From prison to advocate: March 23

Carl Fields
Carl Fields

Denise Lockwood

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.