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Truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, a group of lawmakers led passage of truth-in-sentencing in 1998.

"Many of us, myself included, were part of ALEC," says the bill's author, Republican state representative Scott Walker.

"Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation," Walker recalls. "And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation."

Case Study: Wisconsin
See how the Corrections Corporation of America benefits from its involvement with the American Legislative Council. (Will open new window)

But a former head of Wisconsin's prison system, Walter Dickey — now a University of Wisconsin Law Professor — says he finds it "shocking" that lawmakers would write sentencing policy with help from ALEC, a group that gets funding and, supposedly, expertise, from a private prison corporation.

"I don't know that they know anything about sentencing," Dickey says. "They know how to build prisons, presumably, since that's the business they're in. They don't know anything about probation and parole. They don't know about the development of alternatives. They don't know about how public safety might be created and defended in communities in this state and other states."

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections says the truth-in-sentencing law will add to the state's prison population in the years to come. A recent analysis by the state estimated that the 990 inmates imprisoned just in the first 21 months after the law took effect would spend 18,384 additional months in jail, costing taxpayers an extra $41 million.

That's money in the bank for Corrections Corporation of America, the company that sits on the committee that wrote ALEC's truth-in-sentencing bill. Wisconsin is a CCA customer. Its prisons are overcrowded, so the state houses more than three thousand inmates at CCA facilities in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. The price tag: more than $50 million a year.

Representative Walker says he understood that CCA and some other ALEC contributors stood to profit from the truth-in-sentencing bill. He insists he took that into account before deciding to sponsor the measure.

"Oftentimes that's your greatest challenge, as a legislator, is trying to weed through what everybody's hidden agenda is, and figure out who's giving you credible information and in many cases playing one interest off of another to try and figure out what the truth is. More information to me is better," Walker says.

Still, Walker says that he and his fellow ALEC members relied on an ALEC report that credited Virginia's truth-in-sentencing law with a five-year drop in that state's crime rate. The trouble is, crime dropped in all states in the 1990s whether or not they passed laws like truth-in-sentencing. Experts struggle to understand why, but they generally give sentencing policies just a small fraction of the credit, says criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University and editor of the recent book, The Crime Drop in America. Other likely factors include economics, changing drug markets, demographics, and social change — that is, more young people catching on that drug use and trafficking are self-destructive.

Simple cause and effect equations like the one produced by ALEC — crediting truth-in-sentencing with a given state's dropping crime rate — are frequently used by advocates, not scientists, Blumstein says. "Whenever somebody with an interest in some aspect of the crime-fighting business is asked why crime has gone down or gone up, somehow they always are able to point to the issue they're most interested in as the cause of it."

Next: The Place of Profit in Criminal Justice Policy

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