Joint finance funnies: the prison budget debate that wasn’t

Empty seats in the joint finance committee.

On Thursday June 10, the budget of Wisconsin’s prison system (DOC) went before the joint finance committee and, despite statements of broad bipartisan support for shrinking the system, lawmakers passed a budget that expands prisons and will kill people. The atmosphere was one of jovial comradery as issues of life and death were raised, silenced, and voted on. 

This legislature is so gerrymandered, broken, and corrupt that even members of the ruling party can’t help but make jokes at their own expense. Apparently there was some kind of dysfunction going on with republican members of the committee. They delayed their June 8 session more than 5 hours and started Thursday’s session 90 minutes late. Even then, all of the republican senators other than the senate chair, Howard Marklein (r- Spring Green) failed to appear, prompting Jon Erpenbach (d- Madison suburbs) to jokingly remark “I don’t know what you did to your team, Howard,” during roll call. Marklein laughed and joked back: “I’ll need your vote, Erpenbach.” Everyone laughed.

We hear that the sticking point has to do with parks funding. That means these people will toe the party line when it comes to depriving their constituents of healthcare, education, and effective public safety, but when highly visible pork barrel projects like developing a public park come into play, their party unity crumbles.

In this article, we lay out exactly what went down in this meeting: why multiple bills, all aimed at reducing the harmful effects of mass incarceration, fell apart and how the new budget reveals the depths of both party’s disdain for its own citizens.

Debate Silenced

When the session finally started, Evan Goyke (d-Sherman Park) and the other democrats proposed motion #92. This motion introduced three bills, which would have expanded earned release, reduced crimeless revocations, and allowed people to earn reductions in the extended supervision portion of their sentences. Marklein cut him off after less than two minutes to rule the motion out of order. “I think I know where you’re going,” Goyke replied, “do you want me just to go there, or…” Marklein stuck to procedure, asking the fiscal bureau if anything in the motion violated the rule against discussing defeated topics. The official from the bureau asserted that, yes indeed, Goyke was re-introducing topics that the committee silenced debate on during the JFC’s first big crooked vote on May 7. 

Marklein then turned to Goyke, grinning between his words: “Representative Goyke, heh, your choice, do you want me to rule this out of order, or do you have another motion you’d like to introduce today?” Goyke replied: “it’d just be faster if you let us talk on our motion… but if the chair is going to rule my motion out of order, I move adoption of motion 93 instead.” Then he insisted that the clerk reset his ten minutes debate time and explained what was happening: “so what was just removed in the last procedural motion by the co-chair [just] silenced the debate on criminal justice reform in this budget.”

Let’s look a little closer at exactly what got shot down. The democrats’ first motion contained three bills:

  1. Expansion of the early release program (ERP). Currently the ERP is only available if the prisoner’s original sentencing court had categorized them as eligible, and substance abuse treatment programs are the only programs that apply. The bill, called 2019 AB830 would allow the DOC to make eligibility determinations for someone serving a sentence, and increase the variety of programs that enable early release. Expanding ERP would save money because it frees people from expensive incarceration. The savings would be earmarked to fund additional programs that would qualify more people for release, creating a cycle of improved programming in prisons, and more prisoners being released for completing the programs. 
  2. Revocation reform. This bill (2019 AB831) would allow the use of short-term sanctions as alternatives to revocations from the DOC’s community supervision division (DCC). Even though the sanctions would still serve to disrupt a supervision/paroled person’s life by plucking them off the streets for up to 30 or 90 days (depending on the violation), it would place clear limitations for those penalties, and reduce the number of captives being revoked back to potential years in prison.
  3. Earned compliance credit. This bill (2019 AB832) would create an earned compliance credit for extended supervision (ES) and paroles. This would allow sentencing courts to discharge people from supervision early and reduce the ES sentence limits for class D felonies from the current 10 years down to 5 years. That means less time that people would be deprived of rights and subject to reincarceration for technical rules violations or unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing. 
Senator Howard Marklein, clowning around.

The funniest part of the meeting came later when senator Marklein said, “representative Goyke talked about doing things in the budget as opposed to the normal legislative process… I think the legislative process is good. It involves many people, both sides of the aisle, in open debate, you get public input, public testimony at the hearings. I think we end up with better outcomes.” No one laughed, but the absurdity of this statement coming from pathologically obstructionist republican leadership is actually hilarious.  

A History of Silencing Debate

Howard Marklein is not the first republican leader to stifle debate and action on prison reform. In fact, he’s not even the first to stifle debate on these specific issues. All three bills in Goyke’s motion were originally introduced as legislation during the 2019 session, where they were shot down despite public support and no opposition. 

The first two were put before the assembly’s prison committee which is chaired by Michael Schraa (r-Oshkosh), whose legislative district includes six prisons holding around 4000 people who count as residents but are not allowed to vote. This “prison gerrymander” has the effect of giving non-incarcerated residents extra voting power and resource allocations. It’s reminiscent of the US constitution’s racist 3/5ths compromise. The third bill went before the judiciary committee, chaired by Jim Ott, whose district is gerrymandered to include all rich, white communities along the lakeshore north of Milwaukee. 

Despite holding power based on crookedness and white supremacy, representative Schraa was reasonable enough to allow AB830 and AB831 to have a public hearing on February 13, 2020. At that hearing, representative Goyke introduced the bills alongside support from republican Shae Sortwell (Two Rivers). The DOC itself supported these law changes, and sent their legislative advisor to testify in favor. Members of the public, the state public defender’s office, and a number of other advocacy organizations joined in support, providing a total of nearly two hours of testimony in favor of the bills. Some committee members asked questions, but no one spoke against the bills. Seven lobby organizations registered in favor, zero against.

It was a great example of the legislative process Marklein described: the public testified as experts weighed in and answered questions. Schraa then killed the bills by not scheduling them for a committee vote. Meanwhile, representative Ott didn’t even give the third bill a public hearing. None of the bills were introduced in the senate judiciary and public safety committee where Van Wanggaard, a death cult neofascist, would have controlled their fate. 

At around the same time, a gaggle of politicians from Milwaukee’s wealthy white suburbs introduced a slate of “tougher on crime” bills that would expand Wisconsin’s prison system. Hundreds of people came out against those bills and the committee hearing was a disaster for the package’s authors. Everyone from government officials to survivors of crime as well as survivors of the prison system testified against the package. The tougher on crime bills were impractical, likely unconstitutional, and would have required building and staffing new prisons. A recent Badger Institute poll of Wisconsin republican voters showed more than 70-80% of respondents supporting various prison reforms. Despite all that public opposition, republican leadership still pushed through the tougher on crime package. Only a few republicans, like Schraa and Sortwell, dared break with leadership to vote against it. The package was predictably vetoed by the Governor. Trying to make Evers look weak on crime was likely the actual motivation for these ridiculous bills. 

So, here’s how Marklein’s “normal legislative process” works: popular, well-crafted, bipartisan reforms get squanched by republican leadership in favor of unpopular, slip-shod, and logistically impracticable bills designed as veto-bait to rile up the party’s base with racially coded messaging. Calling that “good” is hilarious. Howard Marklein wins king of comedy in this session. 

A Comedy of Errors

Evan Goyke really competed for Marklein’s crown, though. He even brought props. Before he and his colleagues made their serious impassioned pleas for Wisconsin to join other republican-controlled states like Texas and Louisiana in prison reform, he brought out a little craft project(to the committee’s delight). He charted the ideological spectrum of every republican joint finance committee member and summarized arguments for prison reform that fit their place on the spectrum. He even included national-level republican figures who got good press for allowing action on prison reductions. His presentation was peppered with inside jokes about the various quirks of his colleagues. They giggled and jibed back. It was like a medieval royal court, trading tiresome wit and playful insults while lowly peasants suffer and died.

Senator Mary Felzkowski put on her best straight face to hit the same comedy vein that Marklein had struck earlier, saying, “I can’t disagree with a lot of what you said […] I sit on a very conservative think tank committee on criminal justice reform […] I know a lot of people don’t want to hear that, but we’ve always said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We’ve been doing the same thing going on forty years, and our prisons are fuller, our budgets are going up, and our crime rate is going up. Other states have found solutions […] There are red states that are doing it, there are purple states that are doing it. You have seen liberal think tanks and uber conservative think tanks with the same message. I know I am not alone in sharing this sentiment on this side of the aisle. Co-chair Born, the speaker, they’ve all said that it’s going to be addressed. I would not be surprised after seeing the speaker’s comments that there won’t be a task force, and I hope there is, because […] I don’t think there’s a perfect person in this room. In my opinion there was one perfect person on this earth and that was a long time ago. So, people make a lot of dumb mistakes in life. I think there’s a lot more people that made dumb mistakes and probably just didn’t get caught. We have a workforce shortage. We know that there can be some people out there that never get the chance. I am hoping that we take it seriously and start looking at individuals and helping them get back into a productive happy life.” 

Within minutes of making this speech, senator Felzkowski pranked everyone by voting repeatedly against taking action on prison reform or decarceration. She had explained how she, her party, and their backers all understand that mass incarceration is wrong and stupid, even insane, but she still voted to continue it. She really landed this legislative pratfall, turning the joint finance committee into the summer’s top screwball comedy hit.

Decarceration through frugality

After Marklein closed debate on motion #92, the democrats presented and were allowed to speak in favor of motion #93 which made no policy changes, just proposed dollar amounts for the various DOC budget items. After a few impassioned(but ignored) speeches, the motion failed on a party line vote without substantive comment by republican members of the committee. 

Republicans then passed their more conservative DOC budget. In a few key ways, the final budget saw republican frugality checking the kneejerk democratic impulse to spend, which actually helped slow mass incarceration in Wisconsin. Apparently they wanted to give the rich that tax break badly enough to slow prison expansion. Some specifics:

The democrats wanted $6.47 million to staff and support the opening of Oakhill CI’s new assisted needs facility for aging and terminally ill captives, which the republicans cut by $1.21 million. This facility would not need to exist at all if the parole commission, republican legislative jokers, the DOC, and the Evers administration weren’t cruelly holding aging and elderly people in cages until they die. 

On Tuesday, June 8, while handling the building projects budget, joint finance republicans also cut three of the six health service units from the democrats’ proposed $52 million prison expansion, saving $35.4 million. Given the DOC’s widespread medical neglect and tendency to overcrowd every building they get, the true function of these health service units will be to expand Wisconsin’s capacity to hold racially targeted people in chains. Also, the DOC’s track record of weaponizing medical neglect to murder people means they should absolutely never be trusted to provide healthcare for anyone.

But the fact remains that those in power don’t need more money to help many of those suffering from health issues due to the poor conditions in Wisconsin’s Prisons. Governor Evers has pardon power, which allows him to instead free people who are experiencing medical and health emergencies in prison. The Wisconsin constitution even allows him to grant a temporary reprieve, taking someone out of DOC custody for hospice care and reincarcerating them if they recover. Evers refuses to use that power, however. He set pardon criteria to exclude all currently incarcerated people, and will not even publicly acknowledge it.

Million dollar babies in cages

When it comes to putting kids in cages, republicans were much more eager to spend. They  re-estimated the daily rate and increased funding for the serious juvenile [slur removed] (SJO) program. Joint finance democrats proposed cutting SJO funds by $4.05 million, but republicans chose to increase it by $2.13 million and juvenile contract bed funding by $6.8 million across the biennium. Governor Evers had proposed eliminating the SJO status entirely, but republicans blocked him back in May

When it comes to programming for these kids, however, the republicans went back into miser mode. They chose to increase youth aids base allocations by half of the democrats’ proposed increase: $4.7 million v $9.4 million annually. They cut a $919,500 proposed behavior modification unit at the Racine Youthful [slur removed] Center (RYOC), removed $18.5 million in program revenue expenditures for juveniles, and chose not to address an existing deficit revenue appropriation, cutting $11.34 million.  

In summary, the republican approach to Wisconsin kids is to, first, neglect public education and then lock more kids up for longer amounts of time with less programming. Their comedy style is really getting tiresome. The punchline is just more dead kids

Don’t worry, when it comes to youth prisons, the democrats have a great prank of their own! A few years ago, representative Goyke put together a poorly conceived plan to close abusive youth prisons in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by… guess what? Building more youth prisons! The plan was initially unanimously supported, but republicans backed out when Scott Walker didn’t get a second term out of the deal. This year, governor Evers tried to revive it by building an absurd youth prison; fortunately, republicans blocked that. Evers was trying to spend $45 million to build, and $7.7 million per year to maintain, a prison designed to hold 32 Milwaukee children. That’s $1.4 million per child. (Also, there are actually only 22 children from Milwaukee remaining at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake- that’s $2 million per child) Instead of spending enough money to make each caged kid a millionaire and increasing Wisconsin’s overall capacity to cage children, Evers could pardon those kids and remove them from harm’s way, tomorrow. So long as he’s in office, his pardon power allows him to effectively eliminate the SJO program, realizing his original proposal. 

In addition to new prison construction, both parties also voted to increase prison staffing. Even though the DOC’s community supervision arm (DCC) did not request it, democrats proposed $6.38 million to increase DCC staff, republicans scaled that back to $4.75 million, creating 28 new positions over the biennium. More probation officers means lower case load per officer. The democrats assume that government officials are well-intentioned, that a lower workload and greater individual attention will lead to more counselling and fewer revocations. In actuality, probation officer behavior tends to follow self-interest and outright malice. More individual attention from them means more surveillance, and more revocations. 

State of compassion

Democrats also proposed $26.7 million annually in overtime supplements to increase staff retention by increasing their pay. Republicans cut $5.7 million. We maintain that the DOC’s staffing troubles are caused by Wisconsin’s population being too compassionate to work in a slow grinding humanitarian crisis. Rather than trying to lure sadism out of us with pay increases, the government could actually solve the problem by reducing the prison population. If republicans want to save money by cutting Tony Evers’ sadist bribe money, we won’t object. 

The joint finance committee also cut the DOC budget by reducing its projected population numbers. A report from the legislative fiscal bureau (LFB) found that “the population decreases in the current fiscal year were largely, if not wholly, the result of the public health emergency and related policy changes”. As of May 2021 the DOC admission rate has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic rate, so the DOC won’t hit overcapacity and need to contract with jails to hold excess captives until May or June of 2023. So the DOC exaggerated the coming influx of captives following re-opening of courts after the pandemic. They likely wanted more money and higher population projections would give it to them. 

The LFB reduced the projections from 23,389 to 20,300 in 2021-22 and from 23,311 to 22,431 in 2022-23, which saved $4.88 million over the biennium. It also reduced DOCs projected reliance on contract beds in county jails by 150 over the biennium, saving $4.7 million. We will have to wait and see what numbers prove accurate, but we should also remember that the DOC has the power to get what they want. Indeed, 45% of their admissions are done in-house through DCC agents giving people crimeless revocations. The DOC only has to put those 28 new DCC agents to work, then the Wisconsin mass incarceration bounceback will follow the pace they see fit. Recent bipartisan agreement to increase police funding and legitimacy will probably help them along. 

Democrats and republicans have an important, different approach to contract beds. The democrats and the DOC wanted to fund 200 “quarantine beds” each year at local county jails rather than “isolating” people with infectious diseases in designated areas within overcrowded state prisons. According to the DOC numbers, they still have nearly 1,000 people in COVID19 quarantine and they killed at least 32 people (likely more) with medical neglect over the course of the pandemic. The joint finance committee seems to have decided it’s okay for the DOC to continue failing in this regard. 

Come on Evan Goyke, I won’t pull the ball away, you can trust me!

Of course, the legislature could make these kinds of population reductions a reality by passing the laws they love talking about and then blocking. It’s like the old routine from the Peanuts comics, the republican leadership is Lucy holding out a football for Evan Goyke, and he just can’t help but run and try to kick it, even though he ends up on his ass every time.

Its another tired comedy routine, which is why we’ve got a petition demanding that Tony Evers take action as well as an open letter demanding that Evan Goyke and other reform-minded democrats join us in calling the governor to task.

Harmful cuts

Unfortunately, not every republican-backed cut to the prison budget advanced decarceration. For example, the democrats wanted to spend much more on job training and re-entry programming. They allocated $1.5 million annually for career and technical education equipment maintenance and replacement, but republicans reduced it to a one-time payment of $500,000, which is $250,000 less than the LFB’s lowest recommended alternative. Still, half a million is better than zero, which is what they allocated to basic education equipment for adults. They also reduced the Windows to Work program expansion from $250,000 to $200,000, which prevented three maximum security prisons from adding the program over the biennium. Most impactfully, republicans entirely removed a $5.08 million expansion to Opening Avenues to Reentry Success (OARS) which is a shared DOC and Department of Health Services (DHS) program that focuses on re-entry for people “living with a serious and persistent mental illness.”

Prisons are bad at running job training programs. They often use them as a pretext to extract low-cost labor from the people they hold captive for private companies, state agencies (like the BCE), or prison facility maintenance. We’ve advocated that the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) take over control of this programming because the goal of the DOC is to punish and control people, not prepare them for work. 

None of the training addresses a glaring barrier to work upon re-entry: stigma and hiring discrimination. Really, the best way to help people find a job upon release would probably be to maintain the current favorable job market, where employers can’t afford to discriminate and exclude workers with a record. Republican efforts to cut unemployment, deny people healthcare, and otherwise force people back to work at low wages is probably more harmful than the cuts they made to DOC job training programs. 

Republicans also cut medication-assisted treatment supplies and services expansion in half from $800,000 to $400,000, restricting it to only include the northeast region of Wisconsin, no other underserved regions in the state. 

They blocked a $142,000 expansion of local law enforcement reimbursements for investigations that take place within the DOC. Currently the DOC reimburses the village of Allouez (where Green Bay CI is located) and Dodge county (which contains multiple prisons). When someone held in the DOC dies, local law enforcement does the investigation. Often the deaths are caused by DOC engaged in targeted medical neglect or driving people to suicide. In these cases, the investigations are already terrible. Local law enforcement takes DOC staff at their word, and if they question incarcerated witnesses at all, they do so in front of staff who can intimidate or retaliate against the witnesses. Funding reimbursements from the DOC might make local law enforcement take these investigations more seriously, or they might further incentivize cover-ups.

Courts and treatment funding

After ramming through the DOC budget, joint finance passed budgets for Wisconsin courts, government lawyers, and the department of justice. The democrats proposed motion #95 which would increase pay for district attorneys and public defenders by $10 million, add $3 million for new staff and data storage so public defenders can actually review video evidence for their clients, expand the scope and funding for treatment alternatives and diversion (TAD) program by $19 million, and create a number of smaller programs and funds for the DOJ. 

Speaking in favor of this motion, Evan Goyke described how expanding the TAD program to include mental health rather than merely drug treatment would save lives. He spoke to the far greater effectiveness of mental health treatment in community versus in prison. His comments were very restrained: “mental health care is much, much, better and more effective in a community based setting than is available in the jails and prisons of our state. The access to mental health services in an incarceral setting is limited. Incarceral setting in and of itself can exacerbate mental health conditions[…] over 40% of men and 80% of women sleeping in a prison tonight have a diagnosed mental disorder.” The problem is that he did not actually describe the DOCs approach to mental health treatment: intentionally misdiagnosing people, putting people in solitary confinement for years, force feeding those who resist, or putting them in restraints for hours or days on end. The DOC tortures people and cycles them directly from torturous conditions to the streets, jeopardizing public safety. Expanding TAD funding to include mental health treatment would reduce these horrific and stupid practices.

The DOC’s routine torture protocol.

Goyke talked in greater detail about how just expanding the current, addiction-only TAD program would also save lives. “I remember clearly [as a public defender] representing a young woman, a teenager, who was an opioid addict, and I tried as her lawyer to get her into a treatment program, and she was ineligible due to the nature of her offense, a statutory limitation prevented her from being eligible and she spent some time in jail. Ultimately was able to get a small amount of private treatment. She relapsed and on the first dose, after a couple months of sobriety, she died, before her 20th birthday. Had we had an intervention earlier and at the time at which she was begging for help but couldn’t get it, maybe we could have saved her life.”

He also described how TAD funding saves money; the fiscal bureau estimates that the diversion away from expensive incarceration saves $4 for every $1 spent on TAD. By being stingy with TAD, penny pinching republicans are quadrupling their investment in the prison system which they claim to agree is a horror and a waste. He talked about how motion #95 would also expand victim’s restitution by disentangling it from surcharges and payments imposed on incarcerated people who have no money and get paid $1.50 an hour to work in the prison laundry.  

Howard Marklein, comedy king responded: “thank you, there is no one else in the cue, uuuhh… the clerk will call the role.” The clerk called everyone in the committee by name. The four democrats voted in favor, and every republican against. Before the clerk could say “the motion fails,” the gallery hit their bad jokes breaking point. A woman stood up and shouted “you people are fucking murders” then walked out. Her friend got up and followed, pointing to republican members of the committee and denouncing them for the deaths their decisions that day would cause. 

The co-chairs did not skip a beat. Representative Born introduced and Marklien seconded their own motion for the DOJ, even as people were yelling at them. The republican version of DOJ motion passed, giving $7 rather than $19 million to TAD and reducing public defender and district attorney expansions by about half of what democrats proposed. The republican motion also included $1 million dollars for snitch houses

A complete waste of time

Other than Marlein’s joke and Felzkowski’s rambling hypocritical monologue, almost none of the republican members of the JFC spoke beyond voting. None of the republican members voted in favor of a single democratic motion or against a single republican motion. Had the co-chairs worn colorful finger puppets and wiggled them playfully at the appropriate times it would have been more fun and produced the same results. 

Senator Felzkowski: if a tree falls in the woods and I don’t mean a single thing that I say, does it make a sound?

Responding to Felzkowski, senator Jon Erpenbach (d- Madison suburbs) summarized the situation perfectly: “I don’t know why we’re [only] talking about it now. There was bipartisan agreement a long time ago, there’s been bipartisan agreement forever on [prison reform]. I would hope that there’s not a task force, because we know what we need to do […] no task force, no study group, no, y’know reform caucus. We know what we need to do, so we should just probably go ahead and just do it, so we’re not here in two years talking about the possibility of ‘hey, maybe a task force? Maybe a study group?’ Cuz, if we’re here in two years, having the same discussion, man… we are just, a complete waste of time.” 

Seems about right.

After wasting time with these heartless, bad faith collaborators on the joint finance committee, John Erpenback, Latonya Johnson, Evan Goyke, and Greta Neubauer are going to go back to their districts and say they tried. They are going to blame republicans and wash their hands of responsibility for the horrors going on in their government’s prisons. 

Democrats on the corrections, public safety, and judiciary committees, like David Bowen and Lena Taylor, routinely do the same. Taylor accepts or even promotes republican trash bills. Bowen likes to introduce better legislation, only to watch it die in committee in completely predictable, and totally expected ways. We must stop accepting this abdication of responsibility by democrats.They have another option. They can get their own house in order. 

There is a heartless, bad faith collaborator at the top of democratic party leadership. His name is Tony Evers. He can act. We are demanding that he act. Specifically, Evers can reduce the prison system using his pardon power. He can veto the joint finance committee budget in its entirety, as even mainstream organizations are calling him to do, or cut out everything that expands prison, policing, and other forms of racially targeted terror. He can change internal policies in the DOC to reduce incarceration and internal policies in the DOJ to reduce police violence. 

He has no reason to take these actions so as long as his party lets him keep passing blame onto republicans. To hold Evers accountable, we must hold members of his party accountable. Contact your representatives and your senators (find them here). Send them a link to this article and a copy of our open letter to all democrats. Let them know they and their party needs to deliver if they want your vote or your support in the next election. 

5 thoughts on “Joint finance funnies: the prison budget debate that wasn’t”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: