Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spent much of the week before Tuesday’s primary election protesting some of his Democratic opponents’ hopes to reduce the state’s prison population.
The state’s truth-in-sentencing law — Walker authored it when he was in the Legislature — prohibits the early release of prisoners, which has contributed to prison overcrowding and spurred some lawmakers to consider building a new prison.
All eight Democrats running for office have said they want to decrease the number of prisoners, with four of them calling for changes to cut that population in half. Walker, a Republican seeking a third term, objects to releasing prisoners before their terms have ended.
Walker called a news conference on the issue this past week and later singled out Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, the state schools chief, on Twitter.
A look at Walker’s claim:
WALKER: "How can Tony Evers say he is looking out for the best interest of children when he supports a plan to cut the prison population by 50%. Today, that would put thousands of criminals with violent offenses out on the street." — Tweet, Aug. 7.
THE FACTS: Evers said in a debate last month that he supports a goal to halve Wisconsin’s prison population, but experts say to do that he would need to release some violent offenders early —- a policy he has not backed.
Evers called a 50 percent reduction of the state prison population a "goal worth accomplishing" during that same debate, adding that he would support changes for nonviolent offenders, including the early release of sick inmates.
"We have to stop incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes, that’s the bottom line," Evers said of the state’s prison system.
A campaign spokeswoman confirmed Evers supports an early release program, but only for nonviolent offenders. When asked for a specific prison plan, his campaign said one would be released later in the campaign. Evers campaign website says he would advocate to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, expand drug courts, and keep people who violate certain parole rules, such as failing drug or alcohol tests, out of prison.
Walker points out that Wisconsin housed 23,519 inmates last year and 67 percent committed a violent offense. To halve the prison population, he reasons, some inmates with a violent criminal history would have to be released.
Experts say he’s right.
"It’s absolutely true that over half the prison population is there for violent offenses," said Michelle Phelps, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. "It’s going to be difficult to cut the prison population in half — even dramatically — without talking about violent offenses."
The state could halve the number of people entering into prisons every year by keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison, but could not cut the prison population itself in half, said John Pfaff, a criminal law professor at Fordham University who reviewed Wisconsin’s prison admissions and population.
Wisconsin admitted more than 9,000 new prisoners in 2016 and about 45 percent of those committed a violent crime. Pffaf points out that offenders convicted of violent crimes serve longer sentences, often lasting more than a year. So on top of the roughly 15,000 prisoners currently imprisoned for a violent offense, new offenders are coming in every year who have been ordered to serve sentences lasting more than a year.
"The fear-mongering is misplaced, but the numbers are what they are," Pfaff said of Walker’s tweet. "It’s mathematically impossible to cut it in half without releasing people who were convicted of violent crimes."