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January 16, 2005 - The Wisconsin State Journal (WI)

Filling Prisons Is No Cure-All

By Phil Brinkman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It had been another long, bruising battle, but Tommy Thompson was beaming as he signed the next two-year state budget surrounded by a throng of lawmakers and Capitol staff in July 1995.

"This is a glorious day for me," the Republican governor said with characteristic bluster, noting the budget delivered on his promise to slash property taxes by shifting more school spending to the state.

Among the 1995-97 budget's other provisions: a 13 percent increase in spending for the Department of Corrections, including staffing five expanded prisons. By the next year, Thompson said, Wisconsin planned to add 900 prison beds, not including a proposed "supermax" prison, eventually built in Boscobel.

"We've shown we're tough on crime," Thompson said.

Hours later, Benjamin Bryant, an aimless 23-year-old with a spotty work history who was deeply behind in his rent and car payments, walked into a convenience store on Madison's East Side where he once worked, intent on robbing it.

With the help of his brother, Matthew, Bryant tied up the clerk, 19-year-old Ericha Von Hoken, in a back room, pried open the safe and dumped about $2,000 and some cartons of cigarettes into a duffel bag.

After sending his brother home with the money, he tried to get Von Hoken to pass out by making her hyperventilate, but it didn't work. Finally, he grabbed a phone cord and wrapped it four times around her neck, tying it in a knot at the back of her neck. She died shortly afterward.

It's impossible to know whether Von Hoken's July 26, 1995, murder could have been prevented. In hindsight, the warning signs seem obvious. On probation at the time for a road-rage-related fight, Bryant failed nearly every condition set for him. He got in more fights, always where alcohol was involved, was a suspect in a theft and skipped appointments with his probation officer - indicators, perhaps, he needed closer supervision.

Convenience store clerks also had been dying at an alarming rate in Wisconsin and around the country, including five killed in Dane County alone in recent years. Two months before the murder, an intruder killed a lone Madison fast-food restaurant employee as she was opening up. The killings prompted periodic calls to increase store security, including having two clerks on duty.

This much seems clear, however: None of the anti-crime measures that the governor and lawmakers said would make the streets safer - longer sentences, more prisons, new crimes with which to charge offenders - could have stopped Benjamin Bryant from walking into Von Hoken's store.

"It just didn't click that way," said Bryant, now serving a life sentence for the murder at Waupun Correctional Institution. "That particular week, (the punishment) didn't matter. I thought I needed the money that bad."

The crime, like untold others before and since, points to an inherent flaw in Wisconsin's almost single-minded approach to protecting the public over the past 15 years by ratcheting up penalties on lawbreakers: It puts all the emphasis on the offender, and it tends to target crime only after the fact.

By focusing on prisons instead of prevention, judges, legal scholars and others say, Wisconsin has bought a correctional policy that:

. Costs more than just about any other solution, yet whose effectiveness is open to debate.

. Starves other efforts to combat crime, many of which could be accomplished at a fraction of the cost.

. Fails to tap into existing networks of people and organizations that act as society's informal safeguards.

. Rejects the findings and experience of some of the top minds in the field, most of whom advocate a more balanced approach.

"We've allowed the notion to pervade us that the solution is to catch all the offenders and incapacitate them," said UW-Madison law professor and former state Corrections Secretary Walter Dickey. "It's fruitless."

"If you want to reduce threats to public safety, one of the things you should be talking about is reducing opportunity" for crime in the first place, he said.

Doing that, Dickey said, first requires that those in charge of places where crime is likely to occur take some common-sense precautions. Landlords, for example, are probably better able to prevent assaults on tenants by putting locks on exterior doors of apartment buildings than police are to catch all prowlers.

Research on convenience store safety has found robberies declined after stores adopted measures such as limiting employee access to cash, improving lighting, clearing the windows to make the register visible from the street and limiting escape routes. Similarly, car theft in this country started to go down in 1992 not after all the car thieves were arrested but after manufacturers made vehicles harder to steal.

Imperfect options But preventing crime also requires far better supervision of known offenders in the communities where they live, and the ability to intervene quickly and decisively before they can prey on more victims, criminal justice experts say. In some cases, that means jail; in others, it's help finding a job or a place to live, drug or alcohol counseling or treatment for a mental illness.

"Violence in our society is really a public health issue," said Gerald Nichol, who retired in October after 16 years as a Dane County circuit judge. "If we addressed it like we did smoking or car seats or safety belts, we might be able to make a difference."

Yet, with very few exceptions, the state allows just two options for controlling felony offenders: probation or prison, followed by some period of parole or, as it's been known for the past four years, extended supervision. Both are imperfect.

With typical caseloads of about 60 people, probation and parole officers say they are hard-pressed to provide the kind of active supervision judges expect. When clients miss a meeting or fail a drug test, it often leads to one of two extremes: The conduct is either ignored or the person's supervision is revoked and he or she is sent to prison.

As a means of changing behavior, incarceration has proved to be an even blunter instrument, but one Wisconsin embraced with gusto following a sharp increase in violent crime during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Fueled mostly by the crack cocaine epidemic, but impelled further by a host of other factors - including a mushrooming young male population, economic recession and urban decay - the crime wave made a mockery of the more compassionate corrections policies implemented in the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized rehabilitation.

Angry that judges weren't giving longer sentences and the parole board seemed to be letting offenders out too soon, legislators tried to take over the job of both. Penalties were increased and parole was eliminated. Juveniles could be tried as adults. Chain gangs, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" and life without parole were introduced.

Spending has quadrupled Largely as a result of those policies, the state's inmate population tripled in 15 years, from less than 7,000 in 1989 to more than 22,000 today. The incarceration rate - the percentage of people in prison compared to the overall population, also nearly tripled, from 138 inmates for every 100,000 people in 1989 to 392 in 2003.

Spending on corrections has nearly quadrupled since it was split off from the Department of Health and Family Services and made its own department in 1990. At around $852 million a year today, corrections consumes more than 7 percent of all state spending, nearly equal to what the state invests in the entire 26-campus University of Wisconsin System.

That's more than $150 for every man, woman and child in Wisconsin; in Madison, that's more than what taxpayers pay to run the city's Fire Department.

Despite the enormous cost, lawmakers who routinely ask for accountability on other programs have shown a surprising indifference to whether the emphasis on tougher punishment is working.

No one can recall the Legislature ever asking for an audit of its correctional system. From 1983 to 1999, lawmakers specifically exempted bills adjusting criminal penalties from having to include an estimate of their fiscal impact. A special Joint Review Committee on Criminal Penalties, established in 2002 to evaluate the cost of crime bills, has never met and could be abolished this session.

Nor does the Department of Corrections track what happens to offenders once they're released from custody: How many find jobs, how many re-offend? National studies suggest as many as 60 percent remain unemployed one year after release, while two in three are re-arrested within three years.

Some advocates of tougher penalties accept as an article of faith that crime has gone down because the prison population has gone up. For them, no other test is required.

"When you see violent crime is on the decline, why would you change your policy?" Assembly Speaker John Gard said. "Our costs have leveled off. Violent criminals are staying behind bars. That actually saves communities quite a bit of money."

But the question of how much crime prison prevents is far from settled (see related story).

What is known is that nearly half of the people entering Wisconsin prisons each year are there because they've had their probation or parole revoked; they were not "corrected."

Corrections Secretary Matt Frank said recent budget constraints are forcing lawmakers and the department to take a fresh look at alternatives that both protect the public and are cost effective.

"The basic mission of Corrections has always included this component of rehabilitation (but) I do think there was a lot more public focus in the '90s on locking people up," Frank said. "We're at a point now where we're seeing a slowing of the growth and we're trying to control that growth. It really gives us a chance to say, 'What is the most effective way to deal with these problems?' "

Truth in sentencing Nothing illustrates the direction of the last decade like truth in sentencing, which abolished early release on parole, required offenders to serve every day of their sentences and mandated that judges set a fixed period of community supervision to follow any prison sentence.

Formerly, a parole board would review an inmate's attitude and behavior and decide when the person could safely be released. Now, judges must decide that at the outset.

That creates a dilemma for judges, who can't know whether the person before them will take advantage of treatment programs offered in prison and can safely be let out in two years or will still be a risk 10 years later, said Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser. So they err on the side of longer sentences, Moeser said.

It's impossible to predict the effect truth in sentencing will have on the prison population, but most agree it could be profound. A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel analysis conservatively estimated the increased cost at $1.8 billion over 25 years.

A bigger prison population means longer waiting lists for educational, vocational and treatment programs, with the ironic result that judges sometimes feel compelled to issue a longer sentence just to give an offender a chance to get in those programs, Moeser said.

"I know if I put somebody in prison for 18 months, they probably won't get any treatment," Moeser said. "Generally, the agents will tell us, 'Judge, if you really want them to get treatment, you'd better make it four years.' "

Few would argue Benjamin Bryant is not where he belongs today. Although it was a big departure from his previous conduct, Von Hoken's murder capped a long career of petty crime, starting with chronic truancy and shoplifting after his father killed himself when Bryant was 11. That was followed by more serious offenses he won't discuss - and which are protected from disclosure because of his age at the time - - that sent him to juvenile prison for two years.

But this was also true: At the time he hatched the robbery plan with his brother in the summer of 1995, Bryant was pretty sure it would be easy, and that he could get away with it. (He says the murder was unintended, a claim Von Hoken's family and friends refuse to accept.)

"They don't have the money to put everybody on a (electronic) bracelet. That's probably the only thing that would have kept me and whoever else from going out and doing what they did," Bryant said, adding that a better safe also would have deterred him.

Spending on the front end Most of those who study crime and punishment, including lawmakers, agree on one thing: The opportunity to prevent someone from committing a crime probably passed long before that person appeared before a judge. At its most basic, the explosion in the prison population reflects the failure of other social controls along the way.

"Quite frankly, if money were spent on the front end (in schools and early childhood programs), perhaps we wouldn't have people coming into the system," said Milwaukee County Judge John DiMotto. "But there's no way people are going spend money on an unknown at the front end."

The search for solutions isn't helped by the fact that the Legislature's two political parties barely tolerate one another. Longtime observers say the parties have become obsessed with embarrassing one another for electoral gain. Such an environment hardly fosters the kind of trust needed to try something innovative.

"The entire debate over criminal justice policy has been 'Willie Hortonized,' " said Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison. "Many politicians live in fear of the postcard that comes in the mail accusing them of letting criminals be on the street and being responsible for it."

Yet, recent opinion polls suggest the public mainly wants value for their corrections dollars: They want legislators to attack the root causes of crime, and they favor treatment and rehabilitation over harsher sentences.

"I haven't found anybody, even on the conservative side, who doesn't think we can do a better job and save money," said Barron County Circuit Court Judge Ed Brunner. "I think if the Legislature had the courage to talk about it honestly with their constituents . . . you'd find the vast majority of people would favor some sensible changes that would save the system money."

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