On the morning of July 12, a crowd gathered on the western steps of the Wisconsin State Capital. Looking out over State Street were men, women, and children of many ages, races, and creeds who rallied together to make their voices heard by the governor. The group, organized by criminal justice reform group WISDOM, included the leaders and members of EXPO, former Sheriff Dave Mahoney, and members of the interfaith group MOSES. The topic that brought together this diverse group was Wisconsin’s broken – and currently leaderless – parole system.
Since John Tate II, Chairman of the Wisconsin Parole Commission resigned approximately one month ago, parole has come to a grinding halt in our state. Prior to his resignation, which was requested by Governor Tony Evers, Chairman Tate held to both the letter and the spirit of the laws of our state regarding parole. He had appropriately released many men and women sentenced under the “Old Law” who had fulfilled all the obligations set by their trial judges.
As described by both Beverly Tatum (WISDOM) and Shar-Ron Buie (Marquette University, Veteran’s Transitional Housing Program, and Just Dane) at the rally, “old law” sentencing is sentencing that occurred prior to December 31, 1999. At that time, those who were convicted and sentenced were to be eligible for parole after completing 25% of their sentence. So if a judge wanted someone to serve 20 years, they might give a sentence of 80 years with the understanding that at 20 years the person could be released if they satisfy all recommended programming and needs.
However, in 2000, the start of “Truth in Sentencing” laws meant that judges began giving sentences assuming that men and women would serve them in full. The problem with this change came when the system began to apply Truth in Sentencing logic to those sentenced under the Old Law when the expectations were different. As pointed out by the President of WISDOM Rev. Marian Boyle-Rohloff, requiring those sentenced under the Old Law to serve the entirety of their sentences is not only a violation of the human rights of those who were sentenced under the Old Law, but is also a violation of the intentions of the judges who handed out those Old Law sentences.
At the rally, Dante Cottingham, a new EXPO Fellow for the Racine/Kenosha area, shared his lived experiences with the parole board and all he has accomplished in the short time since his release. His story powerfully demonstrated what was written on many of the signs held by those at the rally: Parole Matters. His story reminded those at the rally of the painful human cost of losing a parole chairman; men and women who can and should be released are kept locked in the secure facilities that house them away from their families and communities that need them.
“Men and women are stuck in prison across the state, in limbo. Men and women who have served well over 20 years, who have sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and communities that need them. Men and women with talents, ambitions, and dreams, whose lived experiences have fashioned them to be unique instruments in the solutions within our communities.”
These men and women have done everything they have been asked to do by their judges and, in many cases, there is no programming left in their secure facilities for them to complete. Further, despite political rhetoric that blames released parolees for a rise in crime, these men and women return to their communities to be what Dante Cottingham calls unique instruments for joy, peace, strength, hope, and justice.
EXPO stands with WISDOM and others at the rally to demand that the governor appoint a new parole commissioner who will do the job of releasing those sentenced under the Old Law. It is what is legal according to the law. It is what is fair according to our democracy. It is what is right according to our humanity.