Former Wisconsin Governor Looks Toward Prison Reform

Sep 6, 2018

Former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has a new book out, "Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime." On Wednesday, he spoke about the book, and other aspects of his tenure, at the Marquette Law School's event On the Issues with host Mike Gousha.

Gousha spoke with the former governor about his major regret from his term in office: the prison boom.

Thompson served as governor from 1987 to 2001. He presided over the largest expansion of the state's prison system and opened its toughest prison: Supermax in Boscobel, Wis.

He also was a main proponent of the "truth-in-sentencing" laws in 1997, which abolished the parole board going forward and placed responsibility on judges to determine how long an offender will be in prison and on supervision.

Some have argued this change fueled the explosion of incarceration rates

There are now more than 23,000 inmates in Wisconsin prisons, almost 10 times as many as there were in the state during the early 1970s. Incarceration rates are disproportionately higher in communities of color

Thompson has noticed, stating that in the past "[the state] got caught up in the hysteria of locking people up."

But he sees things differently now. "We lock up too many people for too long, and it's about time that we change the dynamics," he said, adding, "I apologize for that, I want to be on the front end for changing that."

He understands that many inmates need treatment for alcohol and drug abuse and need to develop job skills. He shared his idea to begin to turn prisons into vocational schools. He says this could provide needed training and also help solve the state's worker shortage. 

"Right now we give [incarcerated people] what's left in their canteen, which is their personal money, [when they get released] and then we pass all these laws that you can't apply for this job or that job because you've got a criminal record, so we freeze them out of a lot of jobs and then we tell them 'don't come back,'" he said.

Thompson said his guiding light in welfare reform was to make sure individuals are self-sufficient. He said the state can do the same things with prisons.

He believes there is a political appetite in the state to accomplish prison reform. He referred to his editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and said he's receied good feedback on it from both Republicans and Democrats. He said prison reform should be a bipartisan issue.