As the governor-elect of Wisconsin, Tony Evers is about to inherit one of the most inefficient and scandal-ridden state prison systems in the country. If he has not already, he will soon realize that one hurdle he will have to overcome with this issue is his state Legislature, which Republicans have maintained tight control over.
During his campaign, Evers emphasized the problematic fact that Wisconsin spends more money on corrections than the entire University of Wisconsin System. As Governor, he will support reforms consistent with Wisconsin’s Democratic Party platform, such as investing in restorative, rather than retributive, justice strategies and increasing efforts that help ex-convicts successfully re-enter society. Evers has stated he would like to cut the state’s prison population in half and has even pledged to make a prison visit within his first week in office.
But if he chooses to fight for prison reform in his party’s characteristic rhetoric, he is in for a rude awakening — criminal justice is a complicated issue which both Republicans and Democrats have dug their heels into the ground over.
Both Democrats and Republicans see the burgeoning prison system as utterly flawed and in need of reform. But there are some key talking points for Evers to avoid, think carefully about and push when addressing his legislature. Let’s consider each point in turn.
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“The prison system is implicitly racist.” While this may or may not be true — given data and research that has found Wisconsin to be the worst offender for incarcerating black men — this point turns off conservatives completely. There are statistics that point to many systemic factors that disadvantage young black men at disproportionate rates leading them into a life of crime and statistics that point to police as exceptionally brutal against black men. But conservatives tend to value personal responsibility over blaming the structure or historical injustices for disparities in the aggregate data. It might even be true that the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated are black. But calling someone or something racist does not communicate any meaning to the average conservative.
“Many people do not deserve to be in prison.” Some argue that people who have committed low-level offenses — anything other than violent felonies — or have served long sentences can safely be set free. It is estimated that this group constitutes roughly 40 percent of all prisoners nationwide. This key point might also create a standoff because it does not contradict the belief that many people do deserve to be in prison — the critical point is where one draws the line. But public safety is a talking point conservatives care about.
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“We would save a lot of money if we only locked up the worst offenders.” The money argument is a very interesting one and an angle worth careful consideration. Conservatives are all about protecting taxpayers, and when it comes to protecting their safety and upholding law and order, it comes at high costs they believe are worth the monetary expense. Because conservatives tend to hold high regard for the men and women who risk their lives keeping other people safe, they can be very difficult to persuade merely on means of saving a few dollars.
“The government has failed to rehab prisoners and get them the help they need.” This point really hits home for the minimal-state conservatives who want nothing more than to see the government shrink without necessarily converting to privatized prisons, which have been proven unsuccessful. The Wisconsin’s Republican Party platform’s lack of words about criminal justice, Walker’s disinterest in visiting state prisons and the administration’s proposal to close Lincoln Hills by 2021 — instead constructing smaller, regional facilities — are all signs that the party likely wants to minimize involvement to just cosmetic concerns.
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Yet some Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, have publicly expressed remorse for the damage their “hard-on-crime” policies have caused, and many are involved in Right on Crime, a national campaign that “supports conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders and lowering taxpayer costs.” It is here, in the combination of government failure and high recidivism rates, that Republicans and Democrats can converge on beliefs consistent with the Republican Party platform, which aims at fixing the over-reach of the federal government that yields null or ill effects on criminals and society.
In recent national news, President Donald Trump has come out in support of a House bill H.R.5682, “FIRST STEP Act,” introduced into the Senate in May, which seeks to provide programs to help reduce the recidivism among recently released prisoners. In line with the universal interest in keeping communities safe and giving inmates a second chance at life, Trump has urged Congress that this is the right thing to do.
Lianna Schwalenberg ([email protected]) is a fifth-year senior majoring in communication arts and philosophy.