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March 7, 2005 - Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune (WI)

Editorial: We Need Better Schools, Not Prison

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One of the most influential members of the state Legislature is talking about the need to build another prison in Wisconsin.

State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, noted last week that the state's prisons were at 132 percent capacity.

"I don't think creating more beds is out of the question right now," says Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "Building a prison, I think, that's something that has to be considered, something that has to be on the table." Oh, that's rich.

At the same time majority Republicans are pushing for a tax freeze that probably would force more districts to shut down schools - in addition to cutting programs, laying off teachers and increasing class sizes - one of their party leaders wants us to be more open-minded about adequately housing criminals.

Yes, we need to have prisons. Not every crook in the state can be safely rehabilitated in the community.

But do we really need another one, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars?

A state Department of Corrections official says no.

"We believe ... we will see a stabilization of our prison population without a new prison," responded Rick Raemisch, deputy secretary of corrections, who noted the capacity statistic is based on one inmate per cell. "Let's stop building our way out of this problem, because we can't."

In effect, Raemisch makes the same argument against prison building that tax-freeze proponents make against Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed big spending increase for public education. Republicans are fond of saying you can't just throw money at schools to make them better.

That might be true - a Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance study shows that some districts have improved test scores while spending less per pupil than the state average. But if the state's going to start flinging cash, most of us would rather see the money used on creating a better life for children than building more space for inmates.

Besides, if taxpayers want schools to get more creative to save money, they certainly would want the criminal justice system to be just as efficient.

Doyle's budget proposal has its flaws, but it would expand the authority of judges and probation and parole agents to order alternative sanctions for offenders who violate the terms of their supervision, providing more halfway houses and residential drug and alcohol treatment programs, according to The Associated Press.

Wood County recently found a creative and what seems to be a successful way to steer drug and alcohol abusers off a path that often leads to prison. The county's Drug Court uses a reward and team system to keep close track of offenders, provide regular counseling and treatment and turn their lives around.

More and more, police are keeping track of criminals through electronic monitoring systems that cost far less than prison.

To be fair, not all Republicans are as eager as Fitzgerald to consider pouring more taxpayer resources into prison construction. The other co-chairman of the Legislature's finance committee, Rep. Dean Kaufert of Neenah, calls support for a new prison "a pretty big leap for me right now."

Not only that, but it would be a huge leap in the wrong direction.

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