By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
We’ve all heard it before. Elections have consequences. The election, of Tony Evers as Governor, may be most consequential for a group of folks that didn’t even cast a single ballot for him. By now most Wisconsin residents are aware that during his eight-year tenure, Scott Walker decided that he never needed or wanted to deal much with the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Walker made it his business to change the way Wisconsin engaged in corrections. In fact, his early legislative career in the state assembly was built on introducing and advancing laws to give longer prison sentences or increase mandatory minimum sentences. He offered bill after bill to lessen an incarcerated person’s chance for parole and overall make good on his “tough on crime” campaign promises.
Today, when we look back on Walker’s record, it is clear that Wisconsin’s over populated prisons and enormous state spending on corrections have been impacted by his leadership acts and decisions. The pinnacle of his work included authoring and ushering through the passage of Truth-In-Sentencing. This legislation ended parole as we knew it. However, it didn’t take legislation for Walker to refuse to address pardons, ignore requests to visit correctional facilities after allegations of inmate abuse, or proactively ensure the safety of corrections staff.
After eight years of Walker’s stubborn resolve to ignore best practices in corrections, implement industry recommendations, and keep in place a two-tiered system of corrections that has failed to really serve anyone well, change is on the way.
Governor-Elect Evers has promised to visit youth correctional facilities during his first week in office. He has said he wants to address mandatory minimums, crimeless revocations, solitary confinement, parole and staffing shortages. Although some of Evers’ corrections plans would require action from the legislature, it is gratifying to understand the difference a varying vision and application of resources can make towards creating an accountable and effective rehabilitative corrections system.
We should all understand that there is a lot that could be done to hold up a shift in the direction of DOC by the Republican controlled legislature. Nevertheless, I am hopeful about the possibility of thousands of incarcerated Wisconsin residents, families and their supporters being provided an opportunity to get the needed programs, responsiveness, and agency reviews they have sought.
Yet, there are things that Wisconsin does in relation to corrections, like restoring voting rights after a formerly incarcerated person has completed all the terms of their sentence. Florida voters, in elections earlier this year, finally voted to restore voting rights for people in the state convicted of felonies as long as they have completed their sentences. They did exclude anyone convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, though. This means that there are only two states left in the United States that never return voting rights to a person convicted of a felony–Kentucky and Iowa. On the flip side, there are only two states in the nation that allow people to vote regardless of a felony conviction, including allowing their residents to vote from prison—Maine and Vermont.