Last summer, just after Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Alfonso Graham as chairman of the state's Parole Commission, Frank Van den Bosch started hearing from disheartened inmates in Wisconsin's prisons. The inmates were slated to be paroled only to have Graham revoke their releases.
"There is great frustration throughout the prison system about Al Graham's reversals," says Van den Bosch, a prisoners-rights advocate who runs the Prisoner Action Coalition from his home in Montfort, west of Dodgeville. "A lot of these guys are giving up hope that they have any real chance at parole, and families are becoming more and more angry at the system."
Inmate Aaron Greer writes that a commissioner determined last summer that he deserved release, 16 years after he was convicted of first-degree sexual assault and burglary. Greer says he spent years in prison rehabilitation programs, and his family prepared a detailed plan to support his reintegration into society. Yet Graham, he asserts, overruled his release "without any reasons behind his decision whatsoever."
DeMara Cumby, now serving a 26-year sentence for armed robbery, writes that he was slated to be released last August after a commissioner recommended his parole. But one day after returning from a work-release program, Cumby says he was locked up, transferred, and told Graham had revoked his parole grant and instead ordered him to serve another two years before being reconsidered.
"I haven't had any infractions," Cumby writes. "On the contrary. I've shown positive adjustment over many years, which is supposed to be the determining factor when considering parole. I do not think it is the chairman's position to set an individual backwards unless warranted."
Letters from other inmates, sent to Van den Bosch and Isthmus over the past year, tell similar stories.
Stricter laws, sterner judges and statutory changes like "truth in sentencing" have led to longer state prison sentences across all classes of crimes. This has spiked prison populations and driven corrections spending to nearly $1.1 billion a year, topping state spending on its university system.
An Isthmus analysis of data from the Department of Corrections confirms what Van den Bosch and state inmates are saying: The tough-on-crime mantra has also thrust itself dramatically into the parole system.
During the first six months of Graham's tenure, the parole-grant rate dropped significantly from what it had been under Graham's predecessor, Lenard Wells. From June 2006 to November 2006, Graham granted parole in 12.5% of possible cases, down from 17.2% from December 2005 through May 2006, when Wells was in charge. In all, of the 4,705 inmates up for parole in 2006, 688 were granted release.
Now more inmates are being denied parole until they grow close to their mandatory release date. This increases costs to taxpayers - the current annual average in Wisconsin is $29,600 per inmate - while reducing the amount of time that newly released prisoners are under the watch of parole agents.
The dramatic shift in practice came after Wells abruptly resigned in the middle of Doyle's last re-election campaign. Wells had come under fire for his decision to grant parole to a man who killed a Milwaukee cop 30 years earlier. At the same time, a Republican attorney general candidate inflamed anti-immigration sentiment by asserting that 77 illegal immigrants were paroled between 2003 and 2006. (The candidate, Paul Bucher, failed to mention that the state, under Doyle, regularly sought deportation hearings for these parolees.)
Wells told a Capital Times columnist that he resigned voluntarily so his decisions wouldn't be used against Doyle in the campaign. In response, a Doyle spokesman announced that Doyle "is confident" his new pick "will not parole a cop killer."
For most of the 20th century, parole was a corrections tool used to motivate criminals to "earn" release from prison by bettering themselves through good behavior, rehabilitation programs and education. It also allowed the system to correct for inappropriately harsh judges.
In the 1990s, parole came under attack from tough-on-crime politicians who played to fears that criminals were getting released from prison without sufficient punishment, then going on to commit more crimes. Their solution? Lock up lawbreakers, and throw away the key - at least for longer periods of time.
Wisconsin eliminated parole in 2000 as part of one of the nation's harshest overhauls in criminal-justice sentencing. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel projected the move would cost taxpayers $1.8 billion in new spending for inmates admitted through 2025.
At the end of 1999, 94% of Wisconsin's adult prison population had a set parole-eligibility date. Now just 4,812 inmates, or 22% of the total population, remain sentenced under the "old law." This means they are eligible for discretionary parole after serving 25% of their sentence, and must be released after serving two-thirds of the sentence.
(Inmates sentenced after Dec. 31, 1999, never see a parole commissioner. Many serve every day of their sentences, although some inmates convicted of less-serious crimes are able to petition judges for release after serving three-quarters of their sentence.)
An inmate eligible for parole is granted a hearing before one of five parole commissioners. This person decides whether to recommend parole or deny it and set the next eligibility date. Crime victims are allowed to provide outside information; inmates' families, lawyers and advocates are not.
Commissioners weigh several factors: whether the inmate has served "sufficient time for punishment"; shown signs of positive improvement based on treatment and education programs; developed a viable plan for success upon release; and presents an "acceptably reduced level of risk" to the public.
Graham has overseen the hirings of two of the five commissioners, Danielle LaCost and David White, both in August 2006. LaCost has worked in corrections since 1995, White since 1978. The three other commissioners, in order of seniority, are Jayne Hackbarth, a 20-year DOC veteran who was appointed in 1999; Steven Landreman, employed by DOC for 14 years and appointed in 2001; and James Hart, a 32-year DOC employee appointed in 2002.
The chairman of the parole board has the sole authority to accept, reject or modify a decision from a commissioner. His decision is final.
Like his predecessor, Al Graham is an African American former Milwaukee police official. In addition to his Milwaukee pension from his days as assistant police chief, Graham has collected a paycheck over the past decade from the state Department of Justice, mostly recently by working in a unit called the Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Effort.
Graham says he first met Doyle years ago when the then-attorney general spoke at police-academy graduations in Milwaukee. As AG, Doyle hired Graham at Justice; as governor, he called on Graham after Wells resigned.
Van den Bosch thinks the governor purposely picked a more hard-line parole chief to shore up his tough-on-crime credentials.
"Gov. Doyle put in Al Graham because he knew he'd batten down the hatches before the election," he says. "Al Graham has got a conservative perspective that's pro-punishment and pro-incarceration. That's why he was put into that office. It's his philosophical position that guys serve a lot of time."
Graham says he calls 'em as he sees 'em, but concedes that it's a difficult post: "I have that hard job of saying, 'No, today we're not going to let this lifer out because of what he's done, based on the facts before me, based on the witnesses that may be out there protesting, based on the victims, based on the district attorneys and judges.'"
He admits he's heard "a lot" of complaints that he's tougher than Wells but says, "I've not looked into the parameters of my predecessors. I've talked to the governor about my views and perspectives and said here's how I plan to do it, and I didn't get any negative feedback. This is how I'm going to continue until I hear differently."
When his commissioners recommend release for killers and pedophiles, Graham says, he scrutinizes the facts more thoroughly than other cases. As a cop, he says, "we locked up these people up for life, and we didn't think we'd ever see them again. Now, I've had to modify that view a little bit based on what I've seen here."
This year alone, Graham guesses he's had about 20 cases of recommended releases for inmates convicted of homicide. He estimates he's overturned about 25% of them. "Before I put my signature releasing a person who's been sentenced to life, I'm going to take a hard look at that."
As for Greer and Cumby, mentioned above, Graham says he rejected both because he felt they hadn't served enough time for punishment based on the severity of their crimes.
Sometimes, Graham gets intimately involved in the board's decisions. When it came time to release a Marinette County man convicted of attempted homicide 22 years earlier, Graham received a letter from the victim, a man in his 60s who is still disabled from the attack. The man was fearful for his life, and said he'd move rather than live in the same town as his released attacker.
"Here's a guy who expressed a legitimate concern," Graham says. "He said he's a taxpaying citizen whose safety is being put at risk because of my decision."
And so Graham called the local district attorney, police chief and the man's parole officer to talk about the release, which he granted.
"Do I worry about that one case? Only because it was the first I had where I could not justify in my mind keeping this person any longer. I fight the urge to call the victim and say, 'How are you doing?'" But Graham admits to calling the police chief after the release to make sure there hadn't been any problems.
"There are no easy cases," Graham says. "In every case, there are families out there on all sides. There are prosecutors and judges and police officers. There are community organizations. And there's the public, whose safety to me is always the most important factor."
He continues: "Are there some who I could have released who may have gone on to do well? There's a chance. It's a question of the law of averages, reducing the risk, and hoping that community and family support is out there and the inmate is released saying I'm going to do the best I can. If I erred, it was on the side of public safety. If I had to go right back to day one, I would do everything the exact same way."
State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), chair of the Senate's Committee on Judiciary and Corrections, moved slowly to confirm Graham's nomination because of her concerns. In July, more than a year after Graham took over, her committee unanimously approved his nomination, but only after Taylor said Graham admitted to a "growth process" during his first months.
At an April public hearing, dozens of people testified against Graham's nomination based on his rejections of parole grants. The complaints received scant media attention, with the notable exception of Wisconsin Public Radio's Gil Halstead.
Following the hearing, lawmakers sought assurances from Graham that he and his staff would work harder to communicate with prisoners, their families and advocacy groups. Taylor's committee also requested a study of risk-assessment tools used in other states that could reduce the need for discretionary decision-making. (The report was slated for release in July, but Graham says it's not yet ready.)
Another concern is the lack of available programs that inmates must complete to be eligible for parole. Some of the programs aren't offered where the prisoners are housed, forcing them to seek transfers to other facilities if they have any chance of winning release. Graham admits this is a burden and says it's "a fair concern" that inmates are being denied parole because they haven't completed programming that's not offered at their facility.
Van den Bosch worries that postponing parole can undercut an inmate's chances for success upon release. It's yet another example, he says, of politicians being more tough than smart on crime. A smart approach would recognize the importance of rehabilitating criminals, giving them incentives, training and the opportunity to lead productive lives.
"No matter how long you extend someone's time in prison, you're not automatically going to have a better citizen when he comes out if you don't provide the skills and programs needed," Van den Bosch says. "The costs to society are much greater when you have people who get out and are unable to function."