How much time in jail should I spend if I beat up a guy at a bar? How about if I drive drunk? Or sell some crack? And if I go to jail, what should it be like? Should I have windows? Should I be allowed frequent visits from my family?
If we care about making our community a better place to live in, these are all questions we should answer. Judges, probation officers, cops and other crime experts have a variety of well-informed opinions on the dose of misery that transforms prisoners into upstanding citizens.
Unfortunately, we rarely get to hear those people make their case for crime policy that works. Instead, we hear from politicians who either know nothing about the issue or pretend they know nothing about it.
Take for example, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. To prove to Wisconsin voters that he hailed from the same caves as his Neanderthal opponent in last year's race for governor, Barrett repeatedly implied that one of the greatest issues facing Wisconsin was the "Cadillac health care" we provide for the state's 21,000 inmates. Maybe some of the inmates we've exported to other states due to overcrowding have enjoyed acupuncture therapy and hot stone massages, but those who still reside in the Badger State are likely jailed in institutions that a 2009 audit warned did not meet federal standards for psychological care. If the inmates are female, they likely live in the prison that recently settled a lawsuit in response to gross inadequacies in health care services.
Then there is Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder. The Fox Valley legislator has developed quite a knack for explaining why Democrats put people's lives in mortal peril, and thus he has become the GOP's point man on crime and punishment. Suder was appalled when Democrats passed legislation that would inspire good behavior in prison by offering inmates early release if they avoided trouble and participated in programs, such as counseling for anger management or drug and alcohol abuse. "Eliminating [the program] will make our streets safer by keeping dangerous criminals behind bars, where they belong," he said recently.
If Suder truly believes criminals belong behind bars, then he is wasting his time with such a modest policy change. What he should really be working on is establishing life in prison without the possibility of parole for any offense, from murder to jaywalking. Because why is it safer for a guy convicted of, say, armed robbery to come out of prison in 25 years (the maximum sentence) rather than in 24? Nothing Suder has done by repealing the early release program will change the fact that 97% of criminals will eventually be set free some day.
Suder's hyperbole sells because he is able to convince people that "early release" amounts to criminals getting a break - as if they are being forgiven for their crimes. Don't let him fool you. Forgiveness is a concept far too Christian for most Wisconsin politicians to entertain.
The truth is that there is nothing inherently special about the sentences that Suder and his allies expect criminals to serve. If there were then we wouldn't see so many convicts reoffending after they're released. In fact, in the years since Wisconsin implemented "Truth in Sentencing," which prevented the type of early-release programs that Suder detests, the state's recidivism rate has remained virtually the same.
The sentences our system doles out to offenders are largely arbitrary punishments designed by lawmakers years ago for a variety of reasons, including the politicians' own values and their desire to appear tough on crime. Given very little attention was evidence-based analysis of how to best rehabilitate criminals. As a result, our prison population has ballooned, but the crime rate has stayed the same.
Certainly, some people in the state benefited from these policies. Construction contractors reaped millions to build prisons, and unions gained thousands of new members as the state hired more prison guards. Unsurprisingly, prison contractors were the largest contributors to the gubernatorial campaigns of both Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle, and AFSCME leader Marty Beil campaigned hard against spending money on "pampered university professors" at the expense of the prison boondoggle.
But by and large, the public has been hurt by the policies. Many good people who suffer from mental disease or addiction are being taken away from their communities instead of getting help. And the massive spending required for prisons has forced the state to divert funding from more important ventures, such as education. We now spend roughly the same amount on corrections as we do on the UW System, which was subject to $250 million in cuts in this year's budget.
The key for us voters is to stop allowing politicians to get away with the righteous BS they've been serving for so long. Progressives should force Democrats to stop acting like Republicans on crime issues, and fiscal conservatives should demand that Republicans stop "spending whatever it takes" on crime when spending is clearly not what it takes to solve the problem.
If politicians want to be tough on criminals, fine. But it would be great if their toughness actually made our lives better. So far it has not.
Jack Craver blogs about politics as the Sconz on TheDailyPage.com.