Why has Wisconsin’s prison population boomed?

Wisconsin’s prison system is currently at about 133 percent of capacity. Since 1990, the total number of prisoners has roughly tripled, from about 7,000 inmates to 23,775 in 2018. Experts estimate that the state’s prison population will reach 24,350 by the end of 2021. This in a state that the U.S. census estimated had a population of about 5.8 million as of 2019.

What is causing Wisconsin’s prison population explosion? One major factor is the revocation-only system of criminal justice.

What does ‘revocation-only’ incarceration mean?

Besides incarceration, Wisconsin’s criminal code offers probation and parole. These are both types of supervised release. Probation allows someone convicted of a serious crime to avoid jail or prison, and parole gives a prisoner the chance to serve the balance of their sentence on the outside.

Being on probation or parole is far from being free. State law imposes a minimum of 18 rules that individuals must follow, such as meeting with their probation agent regularly and limits on how much cash they are allowed to carry. In some cases, the law will impose even more rules. Violating a rule can send you back to prison without being charged with or convicted of a new crime.

Differences based on race

Of Wisconsin’s 23,775 prisoners in 2018, about 37 percent were behind bars were there due to one of these revocation-only admissions. Black Wisconsinites are particularly affected by this system. The Census states that fewer than 7 percent of state residents identify as black. But from 2000 through 2018, 60 percent of prison inmates there for a revocation-only violation were black.

It might seem logical that an increase in Wisconsin’s prison population over the last 30 years is the result of increased crime. But the numbers dispute this. For instance, the property crime rate in the state has dropped since 2013, and is 27 percent lower than the national average. Violent crime is also 21 percent below the U.S. average. Instead, it appears that social problems that disproportionately affect black Wisconsinites, such as unemployment, untreated mental illness, and lower wages, could be larger factors.

Legal help when you are fighting to stay out of prison

Once you are in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system, it can take a long time to get out of it. If you are facing serious criminal charges that could put you behind bars, you need to know what you can do to reduce the risk of that happening. Speak with a defense attorney before you do anything else, such as answering questions from the police.