Republicans abandon bipartisan criminal justice reform in election year push

Even as the federal government and states across the country work toward criminal justice reform initiatives, Republican legislators in Wisconsin are pushing a “tougher on crime” package of bills that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and imprison thousands more residents. 

The package, first presented last month, includes provisions such as revoking parole if a person is simply charged with a crime; expanding the serious-offender program for juveniles; and restricting early release from parole for violent offenders. Critics paint the Republican effort as a performative measure that would needlessly increase the state’s already overcrowded prison population.

“We’re looking at almost writing a blank check to make sure that we can increase the prison population,” state Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, told UpNorthNews.

The bills passed the Assembly Tuesday evening largely along party lines and were sent to the Senate. If passed there, Gov. Tony Evers, who campaigned on significantly reducing the state’s prison population, is likely to veto them.

The bill to revoke parole, AB805, is estimated to require $54.7 million in funding in its first year and $156.5 million annually after that, according to the state Department of Corrections. It would add about 4,700 inmates to the state’s prison population and necessitate the construction of two new prisons, the DOC estimated. The DOC is already operating at 133 percent of budgeted prisoner capacity.

State Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, disputed the DOC’s report.

“I think in the end, their estimates are flawed,” Vos said.

In introducing the package in January, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, focused on Milwaukee while painting a grim picture of the state’s crime numbers. He also noted that Milwaukee is targeted in the federal Department of Justice’s “Operation Relentless Pursuit” program, which aims to curb crime in seven major cities. 

Crime is actually decreasing in Milwaukee, dropping 33 percent over the past five years. Violent crime has increased statewide over the past decade as police staffing has fallen, according to a study of FBI data by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“The language that was used (in Sanfelippo’s announcement) implied that these bills are necessary because black people in Milwaukee are coming into our communities committing crimes,” said Sean Wilson, Smart Justice organizer for the Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Wilson added that Sanfelippo’s statements “had a racist and racial tone to them.”

During debate in the Assembly Tuesday, Sanfelippo and other Republicans used their floor speeches to share horrific anecdotes of individual crimes in Milwaukee.

“This is clearly dog-whistle politics,” Crowley said. “It’s almost as if we’re returning to the superpredator era. We are literally saying Milwaukee is the problem. We’re going to continue to demonize Milwaukee, yet when good things are happening, we don’t want to prop Milwaukee up.”

Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr wrote a memo opposing a number of the bills in the package, saying they “move us in the wrong direction.” Even the right-leaning advocacy group Americans for Prosperity has praised moves to reduce prison populations such as the bipartisan federal First Step Act.

State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, called the package “the last gasp of tough-on-crime bills in Wisconsin.” The former public defender accused Republicans of ignoring the anticipated costs of the bills and being out of touch with national trends.