As this year’s governor race takes off, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has made crime and state prisons a hot topic.
In an Aug. 7, 2018 tweet -- a week ahead of the primary election -- Walker claimed Democrats in the race wanted to cut the state prison population in half, which would "require the release of thousands of violent felons."
We rated the claim Half True. The main problem: While a short time frame might require that, a longer time frame — and reducing incoming inmates as well as releasing some others — would not. What’s more, not every one of the Democrats made the 50 percent reduction a promise.
(Tony Evers, Walker’s opponent in November, has said cutting the inmate population by half is "a goal that’s worth accomplishing.")
As we cleaned out our files after the Aug. 14 primary, we came across an interesting claim we didn’t get to that remains relevant.
It was from Mike McCabe, who was at the time running in a wide field of Democrats vying to replace Walker. He’s a former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and founder of the the activist group Blue Jean Nation.
In a July 6, 2018 interview on Wisconsin Public Television’s "Here & Now," McCabe stated that Minnesota is "imprisoning half as many people as Wisconsin, and yet our states have virtually identical crime rates."
Is he right?
When asked to provide backup for his claim, McCabe pointed to 2016 U.S. Department of Justice data compiled into a map by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center that aims to reduce incarceration nationwide.
According to the data, 22,144 people were imprisoned in the state of Wisconsin, while 10,592 were imprisoned in Minnesota.
That puts Minnesota’s prison population at 47.8 percent of Wisconsin’s -- not quite at half, as McCabe said.
Since the states differ in size, the prison rate provides a better perspective.
According to the justice department’s 2015 data, Minnesota has one of the lowest rates in the country -- 196 prisoners per 100,000 people. Wisconsin’s rate is 377 prisoners per 100,000, or nearly twice that of Minnesota.
As for the state crime rates, McCabe pointed to FBI statistics from 2016 that showed Minnesota with a rate 2,376 crimes per 100,000 residents. That is slightly higher than Wisconsin’s crime rate, which was 2,239 crimes per 100,000 residents.
But it’s not quite that simple.
According to Michael Tonry, director of the Institute on Crime and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, prison rate comparisons are more reliable than crime rate comparisons.
That’s because prison data is all kept by the state. Crime data, in contrast, is kept and reported by local police departments, then transmitted to the state and sent to the FBI. And, though the FBI provides definitions on how to classify various crimes, in practice it can vary widely among local law enforcement agencies.
Still, Tonry said if crime rates are within 20 to 25 percent, they are "for all practical purposes, the same."
This would also support McCabe’s claim.
All of that said, there is something else to consider: In making the comparison, is McCabe missing the bigger picture?
For instance, Minnesota ranks in the top five states for people on probation.
As of 2015, Minnesota had a rate of 2,328 per 100,000 people, versus Wisconsin’s 1,028 per 100,000. So, more than double Wisconsin by that measure.
In fact, if one examines all forms of correctional supervision -- which includes those in prison, jail, probation and supervised release -- it provides some more insight into what is really going on between the two states.
Minnesota had 2,210 per 100,000 residents in some form of correctional control, according to 2015 U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. That placed it in a tie for 14th place with Alabama. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was somewhat lower -- 1,740 per 100,000 residents, tied for 25th place with Missouri and Maryland.
Whether it is more effective to put more criminals in prison or to put them on probation is a near constant debate between Republicans and Democrats.
The reason Minnesota imprisons fewer people, according to Kenneth Streit, a clinical professor of law emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is because Minnesota saw in the 1970s how its prison population was projected to increase.
The state established a bipartisan sentencing guidelines commission to prioritize how to use the existing prison beds. While the state did eventually have to build more beds when crime spiked in the 1980s and 90s, Streit said it was at a "far lower rate" than in Wisconsin.
In addition, Streit said Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines, which are mandatory, offer "very, very limited" instances where sentences can be consecutive.
In Wisconsin, sentencing guidelines are advisory, Streit said, so consecutive sentences are more common.
Streit said he believes, to that degree, McCabe has "identified a major difference" between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
McCabe stated that Minnesota is "imprisoning half as many people as Wisconsin, and yet our states have virtually identical crime rates."
Minnesota and Wisconsin have nearly identical crime rates, and Minnesota does indeed imprison about half the amount of people as Wisconsin.
McCabe’s claim, though, misses some important information: That is, Minnesota has a higher overall "correctional control rate," which provides more insight into how the states really compare.
We rate McCabe’s claim Mostly True.
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: "Correctional Populations In The United States, 2015." Dec. 29, 2016.
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: "Prisoners in 2016." Jan. 9.
Kenneth Streit, Clinical Professor of Law Emeritus at UW-Madison.
Michael Tonry, Director of the Institute on Crime and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2015." Feb. 2, 2017.
WTAQ radio: John Debates WI Dem Governor Candidate Kelda Roys on Proposal to Half WI Prison Population w/Your Reactions." July 24.
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