Sentencing law renews faith in the system
Definite terms help victims and those convicted
Last in a series on prison ministry
By Dan Sullivan
Superior Catholic Herald
SUPERIOR -- Both victims and the public used to be confused and frustrated by differences between a sentence given the criminal and how long they served.
To restore faith in the system, the state put into effect its Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) law - Wisconsin Act 283 - for felonies committed on or after Dec. 31, 1999, replacing the previous system of indeterminate sentences and parole, requiring criminals to serve their entire sentence behind bars.
"If they get 10 years, they serve 10 years," said Janine Geske, a professor of law at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.
One problem with the old system, Geske said, was that when victims heard the sentence they thought the offender would serve that entire time, but in reality they never did.
"An offender would be up for parole, under the old system, relatively quickly, but not necessarily (be)paroled at the first hearing," she said.
Under TIS, sentences may seem shorter, Geske said. For example, under TIS, an individual could get two years for burglary; under the old law, an individual could get five years, "but that person could be released after serving two to four years," Geske said. "If a judge thought the two years release made sense, under the old (statute), they gave a higher sentence, because they knew that they could get out early."
Under TIS, if a judge gives two years, an individual serves two years.
"Public perception is that it's a much lighter sentence, but it's not," Geske said. "As a result of that, there is a risk that judges will give longer sentences under the new law, for the same conduct as before. In part, it's a public perception, but that perception can have a profound effect on the actual amount of time served."
Edward Brunner, chief judge of Wisconsin's 10th judicial district - the 13 counties of northwest Wisconsin - and a Branch II circuit court judge in Barron County, said, "Once people understand it, there is a comfort level. That's why it was created, to give the victim and the public a clearer picture of sentencing. I don't find that we are sentencing people any longer than we did before."
Brunner does see a problem with TIS related to longer sentences and extended supervision (a new name for parole).
TIS requires the judge to set conditions of extended supervision at sentencing, Brunner said. "It's pretty difficult to have a crystal ball and know how well a treatment plan will go. So many things could change. There needs to be a revisiting of the sentencing before extended supervision."
If a person isn't a threat, extended supervision could be better than a long prison term, Brunner said. "If you can provide the same protection and services for someone who isn't a harm to society, they should be under supervision. Most judges embrace that."
Daniel Blank, Douglas County district attorney, said the old system required a lot of explanation. "We would have to tell the victim, news reporters and the community that under a 10-year sentence a person could be released in 2½ years, or they could serve the entire sentence," he said. "In a way, it was a misrepresentation. It's only fair that the victims and community know what kind of sentence an offender is going to receive."
TIS recognizes differences between interpersonal violent crimes and property crimes, he said, but new classes of crimes, such as identity theft and computer crimes, may need to be readdressed.
"It's a different world with new technology," Blank said. "Just because it's not an interpersonal, bodily harm kind of crime, or it's not a battery or rape, that doesn't mean it's not very offensive and painful. The thing about this system is it can adjust to changes in society."
Sean Duffy, Ashland County district attorney, favors TIS because it gives control back to local courts and the community.
"In government, I think it's important to give control to the lowest common denominator," he said. "I think it's up to the actual community to make those kinds of decisions as to how long people are incarcerated."
He said TIS gives his office more control over the length of prison terms."With the other system, that was an unknown," he said. "It was left up to the Department of Corrections. Now I can recommend how much time someone serves in actual confinement. I think that is the most reasonable way to deal with sentencing."
To deal with overcrowded prisons, TIS allows Challenge Incarceration - a boot camp program - for those convicted of a nonviolent crime.
"You go through a rigorous program and, if you complete it, the incarceration portion of your sentence will be reduced and applied toward the extended supervision," he said.
Blank said that, initially, he had reservations, although he agreed the state should be clearer on how long offenders serve. "I was concerned that it would take away motivation for prisoners to better themselves, so if they had a parole hearing, they had an opportunity to be released early."
Some inmates become comfortable in prison and don't want to get out early, Blank said. "These people institutionalize themselves, socialize themselves and get involved in the system."
Other inmates want out as soon as possible. At first, TIS took away this motivation for inmates to further their education or get needed treatment, he said. But an addendum to the law has made programs available and allows inmate to petition for early release.
"A lot of these things remain in the hands of the judges locally," Blank said. "A judge decides if (the inmates) are eligible for the boot camp program or early release. It brings a lot back to the local jurisdiction."
Prosecutors and victims also have a say in early release petitions. Several factors determine eligibility, including age, nature of the offense and chemical dependency issues.
The changes to allow early release means "there is not really the certainty that Truth-In-Sentencing intended," Blank said, although "there is probably more certainty than there was before."
TIS is evolving, Blank said. "The original idea was to make known how much time in prison a person was going to do. "It now recognizes that you can't just lock everyone up and throw away the keys."
"In my opinion," Blank continued, "you should not spend all of this money on prisons and incarceration programs for criminal offenders. We don't spend enough on child abuse, (crime) prevention efforts and setting the stage for people to not make criminal decisions."
He applauded Challenge Incarceration and other incentive efforts as humane. "People make mistakes and you have to give incentive," he said.
Sentencing laws should protect the public and the victim, and give offenders a chance to be rehabilitated, Blank said. "This means the judge is using discretion to impose a just sentence. A sentence has to be balanced and just."