Both supporters and opponents Thursday sounded off on a lawmaker’s proposal to end a program that allows inmates who show good behavior in prison to leave before serving their entire sentence.
The bill, authored by Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, would repeal a provision within former Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-2011 budget act that instated an early release program that allowed prisoners of certain crimes to earn time off their sentence by not violating prison regulations or refusing assigned duties.
According to Suder, 545 inmates have been released so far and 29 have been reincarcerated, which he saw as a large enough recidivism rate to justify canceling the program.
“One new crime being committed is one crime too many,” Suder told the Joint Committee on Corrections and Public Safety, while adding later that the recidivism rate of early release program participants is lower than inmates who serve their entire sentence.
Suder said eliminating the early release program would have no fiscal effect on the state of Wisconsin.
Crimes a prisoner could commit while still being eligible for the early release program include arson, robbing a bank, the manufacture, distribution or delivery of certain Schedule I drugs and homicide by drunk driving.
Two representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving spoke in favor of the bill; they said at least 34 offenders with multiple operating while intoxicating were released through the program Suder would like to see repealed.
“The program undermines Wisconsin’s current OWI law and creates loopholes,” MADD Leadership Chairman John Vose said. “It does not respect the rights of drunk driving victims.”
The Rock County District Attorney and the Milwaukee Police Association president also testified in favor of the bill, but the majority of registrants opposed the measure.
Esther Heffernan, a 30-year member of the American Correctional Association, said she was concerned that the bill Suder drafted had been described as permitting the “early” release of prisoners rather than an “earned” release program, which is a consequence of good behavior.
She said the program at risk of being repealed is a step forward in providing incentives for prisoners to show good behavior, but she added that neither the early release program or the Republican supported truth-in-sentencing acts go far enough to provide prisoners with the tools needed for successful rehabilitation.
Milwaukee defense attorney Cord Klein supported the early release program while being a victim of violent crime himself. He said keeping inmates in prison longer would have negative effects.
“Keeping someone in longer than otherwise would happen goes toward increasing the fact he’ll be more of a hardened criminal than a rehabilitated person,” Klein said.
He added that the early release program saves money by reducing the costs of keeping persons behind bar and gives a “massive” incentive to rehabilitate those who commit crimes.
Two men from Voice Beyond Bars, a support group for formerly incarcerated individuals, also testified against the bill. Dwayne Murphy told the committee he thought the victim came first and foremost.
“We don’t want to make victims,” Murphy said. “We made victims, but we don’t want anyone else to become a victim.”