A variety of religious leaders revealed Monday an initiative which calls on the Wisconsin Legislature to reduce the state’s prison population by half by the end of 2015.
The leaders, who gathered at the Capitol, presented an open letter to Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature signed by more than 300 religious leaders throughout the state. The letter announced the “11x15” initiative, a reference to the size of a standard prison cell and urges for significant prison reform.
Several of the speakers criticized the state’s prison system as being ineffective, expensive and unfair.
“We are here today as a people of faith to call for justice,” the Rev. Jerry Hancock of the First Congregational Church said. “The justice is to reduce the population to 11,000. There’s still time, but only if we act. It can be done, and now is the time.”
A statement released by WISDOM, a statewide organization coordinating the initiative, said the majority of prisoners are non-violent offenders, and a large number have mental health and addiction problems.
The statement said the reduction of 11,000 in Wisconsin prisoners would bring the per capita incarceration rate in line with state like Minnesota, states with comparable crime rates and demographics.
Voices Behind Bars Director Jerome Dillard, who served time in a Wisconsin prison, said while in prison he saw thousands of young men, serving 20 to 30 years for drugs, who were not classified dealers and usually just petty thieves caught in the cycle of addiction.
“We need treatment. It has been proven that it works. It has been deemed a health care issue. Its time for our state to get on board,” Dillard said. “They will become taxpaying citizens like myself. I reach out to the faith community today because individuals like myself need you. We need loving hands to reach out to.”
WISDOM’s statement, along with the religious speakers, emphasized the importance of Wisconsin’s already-existing Treatment and Alternatives and Diversions programs that work to reduce incarceration rates for non-violent offenders.
The leaders also stressed the importance of the Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse treatment programs. They said the programs are not 100 percent effective, but they have a better chance at rehabilitating prisoners than those who do not go through them.
Laurie Zimmerman, a local rabbi at a congregation in Madison, said the system squandered state resources and ignored the existing alternatives.
“So many non-violent offenders [are] ruined by a system that works against them every step of the way,“ Zimmerman said. “What a waste of human resources.”
While several of the leaders, including Zimmerman, said more than half of the prisoners were non-violent offenders, a recent study showed just under half of the prisoners fall into the non-violent category. According to the analysis by the Joint Finance Committee, the state had a total of 21,095 prisoners, and 12,720 of them were classified as violent.
According to the statement from WISDOM, the initiative does not originate from any political party; the statement added both parties have poor records on this issue and stressed the non-partisan nature of the reforms.