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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Bi-Partisan Call in Wisconsin to Revisit 'Truth in Sentencing', Amid Swelling Prison Population


A state Republican and a Democrat agree that Wisconsin's 'truth in sentencing' policy has produced unintended consequences and should be amended.

The policy took hold here and across the country 15-20 years ago, as a solution for making communities safer. It means that people convicted of certain felonies must serve their entire sentence – no parole.

Republican Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield and Democrat Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, both of whom attended WUWM's forum on Wisconsin’s high rate of black male incarceration, told us that one unintended result of 'truth in sentencing' is a huge increase in the number of people behind bars in Wisconsin.

"Back in the 1970s when we look at our prison population, we were somewhere around  2,000 behind bars," Hutton says. "Today, we are about 22,000 to 23,000 and we know that's where this whole truth in sentencing played a part."

Goyke says one crucial component of the policy, was never implemented.

"If a convicted individual was going to serve every single day that he was sentenced, the idea was that that sentence may be less than what it was before. We just haven't seen sentences be reduced, and that's really what's fueled the explosion of our prison population," Goyke says.

Goyke and Hutton say 'truth in sentencing' has also sent thousands of non-violent offenders to prison for lengthy periods of time, whereas treatment for drug addictions and mental health issues may be more effective at addressing the reasons for their criminal behavior.

"That's where there is some across the aisle agreement of whether we are serving them  and our communities well by incarcerating those individuals," Hutton says.

The two Representatives plan to convene hearings on the issue, this summer.

"We need to have the courage to stand up and say 'our system is not working,'" Goyke says.