Legislators will hold a hearing Thursday to gauge public opinion on a bill that would repeal the prisoner early-release program established under former Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-11 biennial budget.

Under the current early-release program, inmates can be released for good behavior before serving their full prison sentence. The new bill, authored by Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, would require prisoners to serve the full time of their original sentence.

The early-release program was intended to get inmates out of prison and reduce the amount of money spent. Tim Le Monds from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said the program did save money, but questioned if letting prisoners out of jail early is worth it.

“There is $30,000 spent annually to house an inmate in prison, but is it worth the risk”? Le Monds said. “Clearly there are some savings [because of the program], but when it comes to public safety, is there a price you can put on that”?

From Oct. 1, 2009 to April 26, 2011, there were 526 inmates on early release from prison. Of those, 29 returned to prison, Le Monds said.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, R-Manitowoc, said he thinks the former governor’s program is a violation of earlier legislation and supports its repeal.

“As a co-sponsor of the bill, I am certainly in support of the basic [aim] of what [Suder] is trying to do,” Ziegelbauer said. “Of course, sometimes these things need fine-tuning, and I am sure we’ll see that with this legislation as time goes on.”

Ziegelbauer said the current provision violates decade-old legislation called truth-in-sentencing that was authored in part by Gov. Scott Walker during his time in the Legislature.

“To sum it up in a word or two, [truth-in-sentencing] was passed around 10 years ago, and it stated that whatever term people are sentenced to, they must serve this term with no early release,” Ziegelbauer said.

Ziegelbauer said a fair way to describe Suder’s legislation is that it does not dilute or undermine truth-in-sentencing. 

The current provision in the 2009-11 budget includes three different categories of eligibility for early release, University of Wisconsin law professor Ken Streit said in an email to The Badger Herald.

The first category allows inmates who have committed a misdemeanor or non-violent felony to be considered for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentence. The second grants a Department of Corrections social worker or extended supervision parole agent to determine whether a non-violent offender can engage peacefully with the community. The third category requires violent offenders to petition DOC after serving 85 percent of their sentence.

Still, inmates who are released before their court-ordered sentence is up are not without supervision.

“Once prisoners are released, they are [under] extended supervision, and they do not return to prison unless they are in violation of this supervision,” Le Monds added.

Walker said in an April 27 brown bag lunch video that he supports convicted criminals serving the extent of their sentence without chance for early release. He said he supports limiting the early-release program and has the public’s safety in his sight.