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During Scott Walker’s two terms as governor, the parole commission released nearly 1,400 people through discretionary and mandatory parole.
Under Gov. Tony Evers, the commission has released 895.
Walker pointedly issued no pardons during his tenure.
But parole and pardons are vastly different things.
In recent days, the Wisconsin gubernatorial race has turned to the issue of parole, and a seemingly stark comparison between Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Scott Walker.
Amid it all is Republican Tim Michels, who is hoping to unseat Evers in the November 2022 election.
Michels put himself in the middle following reports and TV ads that slammed Evers for the fact violent criminals were released by the state parole commission on his watch. Those ads, of course, do not mention that the same thing happened during Walker’s administration, that the governor does not directly allow any release, or that in many cases the releases were required under law.
Michels also mangled a basic concept — the difference between pardons and parole.
"You know how many convicted felons Scott Walker let out during his eight years early on parole? Zero," Michels told a supporters Sept. 10 at the Rally for Liberty held at the Manawa Rodeo Grounds in Waupaca County. "Tony Evers is approaching 1,000 of these that he’s let out early,"
He also made variations of the claim at a Lake Delton rally, a news conference where he was endorsed by the Milwaukee Police Association and during a radio interview on the "Vicki McKenna Show."
So let’s take a look.
Walker versus Evers
Michels errs dramatically on the numbers, suggesting Walker was hypervigilant on paroles, issuing zero, while Evers flung the prison doors open.
First, it’s important to note that many of the paroles in question were required by law. The parole commission — under Evers or Walker — did not have discretion on whether to allow them. (Michels has said he wants Evers to halt all paroles but that clearly is not possible.) And the parole numbers were even higher under previous governors, of both parties.
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's parole commission granted more than 5,000 discretionary paroles. Doyle served eight years. Under Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, who served three years, that number was 2,500, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
And, although the governor appoints the parole commission chair, the other members are hired through the civil service system. The governor is not involved in the actual decisions.
Overall, the Evers administration has released 895 felons under discretionary and mandatory parole, compared with 1,397 during Walker's tenure, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of Department of Corrections data.
Of the total number of offenders paroled during Evers' tenure, 593 were convicted of offenses classified as violent, such as murder, rape and armed robbery. The number for Walker's time in office was 744 violent offenders, the Journal Sentinel reported.
Walker served two terms; Evers is nearing the end of his first.
As the Journal Sentinel reported, since Evers took office in 2019, the commission has approved 461 discretionary parole grants — 51.5% of the total number. Between 2011 and 2018, when Walker was in office, the commission granted 663 discretionary releases, or 47.5% of the total.
So, the percentage is slightly higher under Evers.
Meanwhile, of those who received a discretionary parole since Evers took office, 78 offenders — or 16% of the total paroled — have absconded, been accused of new crimes or were sent back to prison, parole commission data shows. During Walker's administration, 81% of those who received discretionary parole reoffended or absconded.
By that measure, Walker falls far short — though, of course, inmates released under Walker have been out longer than any under Evers.
But the Michels claim, made multiple times, was that Walker issued zero paroles.
That is wildly wrong.
But when we reached out to the Michels campaign to seek backup for the claim, it did not acknowledge the difference and instead continued to connect the two.
Campaign spokesperson Anna Kelly said Michels "has repeatedly referenced his opposition to Evers' pardon spree in addition to the reckless flood of paroles for killers and rapists that he has unleashed upon communities across Wisconsin, often unbeknownst to the families of their victims."
Let’s look at pardons, with this background drawn from an explainer piece published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A pardon comes only years after someone has served a sentence.
A pardon eliminates the legal impact of a felony conviction, which can make it hard to obtain housing, jobs and education. It does not expunge the record of the offense or remove it from Wisconsin’s online court system.
Walker pointedly declined to issue any pardons during his two terms in office.
Evers, meanwhile, has issued more than 600 pardons (as of Aug. 5) during his term. The vast majority were given to people convicted of low-level nonviolent crimes. Indeed, he has touted the pardons. We rated True a claim by Evers that he has issued more pardons than "any Wisconsin governor in contemporary history."
To be sure, the number of people eligible for parole has been declining. Indeed, parole only applies to individuals sentenced for crimes that occurred before Jan. 1, 2000.
That’s when the truth-in-sentencing law — authored by Walker when he was a state lawmaker — took effect. It had broad bipartisan support at the time.
For a look at how it works, let’s return to the Journal Sentinel explainer:
Currently in Wisconsin, a judge will specify how many years someone will spend in prison, known as initial confinement, and how many years a person will be monitored in the community, known as extended supervision.
The law requires all prisoners to serve every day of the sentence imposed by a judge.
Under the parole system, judge sentenced people to prison and after a certain time period, they became eligible for parole.
Then it was up to the parole commission to decide if the person should stay behind bars or go out into the community on supervision.
About 8% of the state's 20,235 in-custody prisoners were sentenced under the parole system, according to Department of Corrections data. The state reported that 1,784 people in custody had at least one parole-eligible offense at the end of August. The average age of those people is 52.4 years old.
Michels claimed "You know how many convicted felons Scott Walker let out during his eight years early on parole? Zero. Tony Evers is approaching 1,000 of these that he’s let out early."
There are many ways this was mangled, but here is the chief one: Walker refused to issue any pardons, not any paroles. And many paroles are required by law — for instance, once a person reaches a certain stage of a sentence and has completed certain programs.
Michels incorrectly interchanges the two.
What’s more, when it came to paroles, some 895 felons have been released during Evers’ tenure — not 1,000. And when just discretionary releases are considered, since Evers took office in 2019 discretionary parole grants by the commission represented 51.5% of the total number. Under Walker, the percentage was 47.5% of the total.
Since Michels has made the statement repeatedly, and continues to lump the two together in attacks even after being alerted to the difference, it’s clear this is not a semantic error.
For us, that makes this claim false and ridiculous.
That’s what we call Pants on Fire!
Tim Michels, audio of speech, 00.16.47
Email, Anna Kelly, Sept. 23, 2022
Waupaca County Republican Party Rally for Liberty, Sept. 10, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Michels wants to halt all paroles in Wisconsin, citing release of violent offenders under Evers. Many of those were required by law," Sept. 21, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "What to know about parole, truth in sentencing and when people can get out of prison in Wisconsin," Sept. 21, 2022
PolitiFact Wisconsin Tony Evers "says he has issued more pardons than "any Wisconsin governor in contemporary history," Feb. 15, 2022
WMTV NBC15.com "Governor Evers grants 49 pardons" Aug. 5, 2022
Channel3000 "Michels, Johnson talk crime and immigration at Dells rally," Sept. 10, 2022
WISN-12 "Candidate for governor Tim Michels and the Milwaukee Police Association," Sept. 13, 2022
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