Three state lawmakers from southeastern Wisconsin want to toughen penalties on those who repeatedly commit violent crimes.
"We know that habitual offenders are increasingly terrorizing our neighborhoods and preying on innocent victims," state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a YouTube video uploaded Feb. 1, 2017.
As Sanfelippo spoke, a graphic behind him caught our attention.
It claimed that "Over 39% of violent criminals return to prison following their release."
To check the claim, we turned first to an official report on recidivism published by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in September 2016. It tracks whether inmates are sentenced for a new crime after they are released from prison for an earlier offense.
The report shows recidivism trends covering more than 156,000 offenders who were released from the Wisconsin correctional system between 1990 and 2013, Corrections Secretary Jon E. Litscher wrote in an introduction.
Quick takeaway: Since the early 1990s, the percentage of inmates who are convicted of a new crime within three years of getting out of prison has fallen steadily.
In the category of "violent" criminals, the Department of Corrections looked at those convicted of murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, negligent manslaughter, kidnapping, other sexual assault, simple assault, and other violent offenses including intimidation, illegal abortion, extortion, cruelty toward a child or wife and hit-and-run driving with bodily injury.
Violent crimes do not include aggravated burglary or burglary, DOC spokesman Tristan Cook told us. The standards come from the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) Performance-Based Measures System.
For those who committed violent crimes -- the group Sanfelippo is interested in -- 27.2% were considered recidivists, according to the latest state report.
So does that mean Sanfelippo is way off target by saying "over 39% return to prison?"
There’s a wrinkle here related to the definition of "recidivism."
Under the definition used in the report, recidivism means those who are convicted and sentenced for a new crime.
That leaves out a whole category of offenders who return to prison without being convicted of a new crime. Typically they land in prison when their probation, parole or extended supervision is revoked by the state.
When you factor in those cases, the rate was 39.7% in the most recent figures, according to the state Department of Corrections. It’s that calculation that Sanfelippo points to in backing up his claim.
The state calls that the "reincarceration rate." It’s a commonly used measurement in incarceration research.
And Sanfelippo’s phrasing in the video squares with that data.
But there is one issue with his approach.
Sanfelippo portrays these repeat violent offenders as "terrorizing our neighborhoods," but many who are sent back due to parole violations and related matters have done something that does not warrant a new criminal charge.
Violent offenders are returned quite frequently for technical violations, in part because they are under more stringent supervision due to the serious nature of their offenses, said Thomas LeBel, a criminal justice expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
A Journal Sentinel investigation published in 2015 found the process that sends violators back behind bars relies largely on the judgment of individual parole agents, which can vary widely.
Among the reincarcerated, more than half were imprisoned when their probation, parole or extended supervision was revoked, with no new conviction and sentencing, Corrections Department statistics show.
In those types of cases, there was suspected criminal activity in about 70% of cases involving some 3,000 ex-offenders sent back to prison without being convicted of new crimes in 2015, Corrections Department statistics show.
But technical violations are a factor too. They can include things such as accepting a job without permission, missing a meeting with a probation or parole officer, or leaving their home counties, according to a study by WISDOM, a statewide group of faith leaders and activists dedicated to prison reform.
Indeed, some can wind up back in prison even if acquitted of charges in court. In February 2017, the Journal Sentinel wrote about Damien Payne, a Milwaukee man on state supervision after release from prison in 2010.
Payne was found not guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of carrying a concealed weapon, but still was sent to prison for more than three years. A Corrections Department rule allows that action.
Sanfelippo claimed that "over 39% of violent criminals return to prison following their release."
The number tracks a credible report by the state, so it’s on target.
But it needs clarification because Sanfelippo portrays the repeat offenders as "terrorizing" neighborhoods when some very likely were imprisoned anew for lesser violations.
That’s our definition of Mostly True.