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Eric Litke
By Eric Litke January 19, 2021

Most progress so far related to COVID-19

During his successful 2018 campaign, Gov. Tony Evers said he supported the "goal" of cutting the Wisconsin prison population in half.

Evers noted it was a long-term effort that couldn't be done in a single term. So halfway through his term, it's time to check if we've seen progress made in that direction.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback noted in an email that the prison population dropped from more than 23,000 in 2019 to 20,000 at the end of 2020. But it's not fair to view all of that as proof of long-term progress.

The state Department of Corrections said that drop is primarily due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which halted trials for a time and continues to hinder the speed of the judicial system.

"A major part of the decrease in population can be attributed to a slower-moving court system during the pandemic," DOC spokesman John Beard said in an email.

Beard also noted the department is limited in its ability to immediately reduce the population, since only a few programs allow inmates to be set free before their scheduled release date. 

In 2020, those early releases included 65 people in an Alternative to Revocation program in Milwaukee who were released in April to finish programming in the community, 21 people in a variation of the earned release program and 16 people who had their sentences modified by courts due to their health or age.

But the DOC has also made changes that could have a more long-term effect on the prison population, albeit a limited one, Beard said.

The Earned Release Program — an early release program for inmates with substance abuse disorders — added four new sites and increased its enrollment noticeably last year, from 1,909 inmates in 2019 to 2,122 in 2020. 

And the DOC changed several procedures related to revocations starting in January 2021, aimed at reducing the number of people returned to prison for violations. After serving a prison term, inmates generally are released on extended supervision (similar to probation), where they must follow an array of rules or risk being sent back behind bars.

The DOC has reduced the number of standard rules — in favor of guidelines related more directly to a given inmate's criminal history — and has increasingly used short-term sanctions (short jail stays) instead of formal revocation of extended supervision that would result in a longer return to prison.

We rate promises based on results, not intent. So even if these policy changes weren't initiated by Evers, they count as progress toward his promise since they happened under his watch.

Wisconsin is a long way from reaching the goal of cutting the prison population in half — and the immediate progress seen in 2020 largely is related to the pandemic rather than policy changes — but steps have been taken in that direction. 

We rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

Email exchange with Britt Cudaback, spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers, Jan. 11-14, 2021

Email exchange with John Beard, Department of Corrections spokesman, Jan. 15-19, 2021

Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Earned Release Program FAQs, accessed Jan. 19, 2021

Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Weekly Population reports, 1999-2020

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