A proposal to repeal Wisconsin’s early release for inmates faces stiff opposition from the state’s top corrections official, who argues scrapping the program could force more prison construction spending.
“If we don’t continue down the road we’re on in reducing numbers (of inmates), then I’m going to have to ask every taxpayer in Wisconsin to pull out their wallet and purse and empty it on the table,” said Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch. “Because that’s what we’ll need, and that’s the direction we’ll be heading.”
But state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said he opposes the early release program because it puts convicted felons back into society, endangering Wisconsin residents.
Bills to repeal the program failed to get legislative attention during the session that ended last month. Suder said Monday he will request an audit of the early release program by the Legislative Audit Committee.
“I’m not going to stop until this is repealed,” he said.
The program, approved as part of the 2009-11 state budget, lets the Corrections secretary or a special committee grant early release to nonviolent felons based on their records and willingness to join post-release programs aimed at reducing repeat offenses.
So far, 140 inmates were released through the program, with five pending, according to Corrections spokesman Tim Le Monds. He said the releases saved taxpayers almost $677,000.
That is a small fraction of the $1.2 billion in maintenance and upgrade needs Madison-based Mead & Hunt Inc. outlined for the state prison system in a report last year. But those upgrades were based on an inmate population increase, said Earl Fischer, administrator of the department’s Division of Management Services.
“It didn’t anticipate a lot of legislation that came out last year,” he said.
In addition to passing the early release program, the Legislature approved a bill making a third or fourth drunken-driving offense a felony. Previously, the fifth offense was a felony, and the change, Fischer said, could add to the inmate population.
Raemisch said if the inmate count rises, construction and upgrade needs will become more pressing.
The problem for Corrections, he said, is prioritizing projects. The department, in the 2009-11 budget, requested $250 million to finance projects at all of its prisons. It received $30 million.
“We just have to look at the needs at each institution,” Raemisch said.
Suder said he supports spending money for the right reasons.
“If it’s not frivolous projects and this money is being used to make sure these places are secure,” he said, “I don’t think you’ll find a Democrat or Republican who will say ‘no’ to a project.”
Both GOP candidates for governor, Scott Walker and Mark Neumann, said they oppose early release and would consider alternative programs.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor, was unavailable for comment. Spokesman Phil Walzak said Barrett had “serious concerns” about early release.
Raemisch said early release reduces the number of inmates and eases pressure for construction. If the program ends, he said, the state needs an alternative or taxpayers will have to continue spending millions on upgrades.
“We can’t build our way out of this problem,” he said.