Wisconsin Hopes Guidelines Will Limit Prison Costs

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Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has named a commission he hopes will help judges make more informed – and more cost-effective sentencing decisions, the Capital Times reports. An 18-member state Sentencing Commission will be headed by former Dane County Judge Susan Steingass. The governor fills seven seats on the panel; others go to designees of the state courts, the Legislature, the State Bar and the state Justice Department.

The panel will review the penalties judges hand down, identify how much those sentences are costing taxpayers and develop voluntary guidelines for judges.

“It’s amazing how little data there is,” Doyle told the newspaper. “In this day and age, you’d think you could push a button and find out what an average unarmed burglar on his third offense would get,” but no information is available. “You should be able to know that and then make some policy decisions, but we don’t have the data.”

Doyle and other officials say information is critical as they try to rein in prison costs. The prison system has been one of the fast-growing items in the state budget. Wisconsin’s inmate numbers more than tripled from 6,000 in 1990 to 22,000 today. In six years, spending on prisons rose more than 45 percent, from $1.3 billion to nearly $2 billion in the 2004-05 budget.

Department of Corrections officials worry about long-term effects of a 2000 “truth in sentencing” law. The law abolishes parole and other early-releases, so an inmate sentenced to 10 years serves the full 10. Previously, that inmate served at most 6 years and 9 months. It was assumed judges would sentence offenders to the prison terms they would have served under the old system. That hasn’t happened. Instead, it appears judges still hand down the same sentences, so inmates often end up behind bars longer.

Link: http://www.madison.com/captimes/news/stories/55671.php

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