Building a More Equitable Justice System: A Message From Governor Tony Evers
My Fellow Wisconsinites,
On behalf of Wisconsinites everywhere, I hope this message finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy. Last night, I dealivered my second biennial budget address and laid out my Badger Bounceback agenda to help make sure Wisconsin can bounce back from this pandemic stronger than we were before. Remembering some of your previous correspondence, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and I would like to share our plan to make Wisconsin’s justice system more equitable by investing in rehabilitation, treatment, and alternatives to incarceration.
For far too long, Wisconsin has failed to adequately fund alternatives to incarceration, especially for folks who need mental health services or substance abuse treatment. Our prisons have been overcrowded and we haven’t given folks enough resources or tools to be safe and successful when they re-enter our communities. And perhaps most importantly, we have yet to address the disproportionate impact decades of laws have had on communities of color. It’s time to face the facts—we have got to change.
Expanding access to treatment and diversion isn’t just the right thing to do for people, it’s the right thing to do for our pocketbooks, too. In the 21st Century, we can use science and evidence to help us make better decisions, and save more tax dollars in the long run by investing in treatment and alternatives to incarceration. A Wisconsin Department of Justice study found that for every single dollar we invest in diversion programs, we can save more than $8 in return. That’s why in our last budget, we increased funding for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) programs to the highest level ever. We’re going to double down on that investment in this year’s budget by providing an additional $15 million to expand this program. Also as part of the 2021-23 Biennial Budget, we’re going to expand the earned release program to include programs that are evidence-based to reduce recidivism. These include programs like education, work training, and treatment that will provide folks with the resources and support they need to be successful when they re-enter our communities.
We aren’t stopping with more funding for the TAD and earned release programs. We are also going to establish a Sentencing Review Council to comb through our state’s criminal code to focus on equity, rehabilitation, and evidence-based sentencing practices. It’s been almost two decades since the last wholesale rewrite of Wisconsin’s criminal code. A decade-long study on “Race and Prison Sentencing in Wisconsin” found that, compared to their white counterparts, Black men convicted of felonies in Wisconsin are 28% more likely to end up in prison. Hispanic men were 19% more likely. Native American men are 34% more likely to end up in prison. This Sentencing Review Council will strive to correct these disparities and make this system more fair while keeping our communities safe.
In addition to addressing the need for reform within the adult system, we also have to look to how we are treating Wisconsin’s youth. It’s been years since the Legislature passed 2017 Wisconsin Act 185 and promised to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Many of those changes and promises have yet to be realized due to legislative inaction. And, by focusing only on physical buildings and not on holistic change, Act 185 was always going to fall short. That’s why, in this budget, we propose closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by eliminating Act 185’s outdated two-tier correctional system. This will create smaller, community-based facilities across Wisconsin to make sure that our kids get the same evidence-based treatment and behavioral support no matter what part of the state they’re from. Additionally, we’re investing in community-based services to reduce the number of youth who need a secure placement in the first place.
Last, but certainly not least, I believe that is long past time to join other states—including two of our neighbors—in treating marijuana much in the same way we treat alcohol. My budget proposal would legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use if sold by a marijuana retailer with a statewide permit. We will also provide a path for medical marijuana users to access the product without paying retail taxes. Our proposal will help ensure a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users while also reinvesting in communities most affected by disproportionate marijuana enforcement.
Reforming our justice system is long overdue, and it’s part of our overall goal to ensure our families, our communities, and our state bounce back and better than before. I hope you’ll join me in fighting for a budget that puts the people of Wisconsin first. I encourage you to watch my budget address, read more about my budget, and contact your legislators to encourage them to pass this critical budget as is.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
GOVERNOR TONY EVERS
P.O. Box 7863
Madison, WI 53707
LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR MANDELA BARNES
P.O. Box 2043
Madison, WI 53707
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