September parole commission notes  

Commission chair Tate joining the meeting on zoom from his home balcony.

Audio version

This is part of an ongoing series where we attend the monthly staff meeting of the parole commission and make notes available to the public and to captives held under the old law (sentenced before 2000). 

September’s meeting was on Wednesday the 1st. It was attended by commission chair, John Tate II, all three commissioners, and two records associates. The public portion was about 20 minutes long, and there was a “no action” case they discussed in closed session afterward. 

Gradual change

Tate started the meeting similarly to the last few meetings, bringing up a few tweaks that suggest he is making gradual changes to the parole commission process. First, he indicated that parole commissioners should use third person rather than first person language when describing their choices. So, rather than saying for example, “I recommend a two month defer” they should say “the commissioner recommends a two month defer.” Tate said this “better indicates that these are the agency’s choices, not individuals.”

Second, he described needed changes to WIX, the online forms the commission uses to keep records of their activities. He said he is working to create new drop-downs (like multiple choice options) that more accurately “reflect what we do, and how we describe what we do.” The first example he brought up was people who were being “paroled to TIS”. That refers to someone who has multiple sentences, one under the “old law” and one under the truth in sentencing law. This should only happen if someone was convicted of a crime after 2000, while already serving a sentence from prior to 2000. The fact that WIX doesn’t have a drop-down for this situation suggests that people in the situation may not have been granted or seriously considered for releases by previous commission chairs. It’s another small indication that Tate is doing better than his predecessors. 

Unfortunately, Tate’s statements also suggest that his progress may be overstated. Another drop-down example Tate raised is “deferred due to insufficient time for punishment”. He said he would get rid of that category and replace it with something like “deferred due to insufficient time to depreciate the seriousness of the offense”. He said this language better reflects the standards used by the commission today. The language change indicates a desire for a culture shift away from seeing the purpose of incarceration as retribution, and toward deterrence. 

In practice, that change is likely superficial. Generally, “insufficient time for punishment” has been the catch-all used by commissioners to avoid seriously considering an individual’s case, because there is nothing a parole applicant can do in response or to improve their chances. Deferring someone based on fear of “depreciating the seriousness of the offense” also leaves that person with no action they can take to change the situation. The change is merely semantic. Either deferral rationale has the same effect. 

A tweet where commission chair Tate says “reform is not enough”, a message he should take to heart himself.

A penological theory tangent 

The language of “depreciating the seriousness of the offense” is also bullshit. It’s part of sentencing guidelines judges use, and one of the common justifications for punishment. Like most mainstream penological theory, it’s based on specious logic. The idea is that public knowledge of harsh prison sentences will deter people from violating laws. In reality, most people who violate the law are either expecting to not get caught, or are not thinking rationally about their actions. Most crimes, especially violent crimes, are situational. They are committed in the context of severely impaired judgement and risk assessment due to substance abuse, addiction, emotional distress, or mental illness. 

Other times, people commit crimes in the context of economic distress, where a lack of resources or better options makes risking punishment more acceptable. Considering that police are quite bad at solving crimes, especially non-violent property crimes, and that economic opportunities are systematically denied to criminalized people living in low income communities, a life of crime might be the more reliable and rational choice. It’s not like going around begging for precarious, low-wage employment, or accumulating student loan debt are wonderful alternatives.

In 2016, the Sentencing Project released a report on deterrence that indicated that “increases in the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, are more likely to produce deterrent benefits.” In other words, the risk of being caught at all plays a larger role in risk assessment than the severity of the penalty for those who are caught. Even then, deterrence is a poor approach to public safety. Rather than addressing the situations that lead people to hurt others, threats of imprisonment and long sentences only make the situations scarier and more stressful. Someone who is afraid and feels trapped is not more likely to carefully assess risks or make good choices for themselves or their community.

Regarding Tate’s parole commission, everyone he’s considering for release was sentenced before 2000. Each of them has already lost at least two decades of their lives to prison. Let’s say someone is going before Tate with a double homicide on their record. When Tate refuses to grant that person a release because he doesn’t want to “depreciate the seriousness of the offense” he is basically telling them: “sorry, you need to serve more time, because if I let you off with only 20-30 years, everyone might start to think I’m fine with people killing each other, and start doing it more often.” That’s a completely absurd idea. People almost always commit murder while in the heat of interpersonal conflict, the turmoil of an emotional crisis, or because something else has gone suddenly and horribly wrong. In which of those scenarios does John Tate imagine someone pausing to think about how serious the parole commission considers the offense and being deterred?

Wisconsin prison population, from WisCONTEXT

Secondly, everyone going before the commission was sentenced by judges, who have already considered this “depreciating the seriousness of the offense” nonsense when determining their sentence and parole eligibility date. By deferring someone for this reason, Tate is saying that the sentencing judge was too lenient. Again, everyone going before the commission was sentenced before 2000, most of them in the late 80s or 90s, during the height of “tough on crime” culture that fed the mass incarceration boom. Tate cannot simultaneously think these judges were too soft and also consider himself a reformer or opponent of mass incarceration. Deferring someone based on “depreciating the seriousness of the offense” is a catagorically pro-prison decision, only a stalwart fan of amerika’s racially targeted mass incarceration practices would do such a thing.    

Pardons update (a further tangent)

Unsurprisingly, Tony Evers also believes in this twisted logic when it comes to pardon consideration. On Tuesday September 7, he issued a new executive order stating that his pardon board chair may skip a hearing and more quickly recommend pardons, but only for cases where, among other factors, “sufficient time has elapsed to preclude depreciation of the severity of the applicant’s offense or offenses”. This order, not coincidentally issued the day after we published a video publicly shaming him for inaction on pardons, does not expand his viciously restrictive pardon criteria to include anyone currently imprisoned or on supervision. It is nothing like what we demanded of him, so we will continue to confront, shame, and demand better.

Neither the governor’s original order creating the pardon advisory board, nor his pardon application include any language explaining why Evers chose to limit consideration to those who completed their sentence more than 5 years ago, but the logic is consistent with “depreciation of the severity of the offense”. No matter how deserving an individual may be of mercy, forgiveness, or redemption, the blanket justification that leniency might somehow encourage others to commit violent crimes prevents him from even considering a pardon. It’s a cop-out, a way for Evers to wash his hands and shrug, rather than acknowledging or addressing the myriad specific and intimate harms caused by his incarceration system. 

Hopefully these tangents are informative and helpful. Let’s get back to the meeting. 

Commissioner issues

Tate asked commissioners for feedback or questions. Jennifer Kramer spoke about issues she was having with setting up zoom meetings for people who are held out of state on interstate compact, which begs the question: before covid, were interstate compact parole hearings being held on zoom? 

Doug Drankiewicz then brought up issues he was having with “new law and TIS combined cases” and “reformulating the equation so if you release to TIS and it’s a PMR, the PMR review would occur 2 months before”. This was too technical for me to follow, but, like the WIX drop-down example Tate raised above, it suggests the commission is handling cases where people have convictions before 2000 and after differently. If you, or someone you know is in that situation, I would suggest writing to the parole commission, or investing a little more hope or energy into your hearings. 

Drankiewicz then brought up an interesting complaint. Apparently, at Racine CI there is a guard who makes people who are on video calls keep their masks on. The video calls are conducted with the individual alone in a closed booth, so there is not a realistic COVID communication risk. Drankiewicz said that he can look over the parolee’s shoulder and see people in the visiting room without masks on, but the guard watching the booth is so vigilant that they repeatedly interrupted hearings to tell the parolee to adjust their mask. 

Commissioner Drankiewicz, enjoying a recent golf vacation with his family.

Drankiewicz has, in the past, expressed a weird belief that seeing a parolee’s face is an essential part of the hearing process. He seems to think he’s looking for poker tells or connecting with someone on a deep emotional level during a hearing. Anyway, the vigilant guard interrupting the hearing to enforce mask discipline sounds like the typical prison guard jerk on a power trip. It was kind of funny to hear Doug Drankiewicz, himself a real power-tripper, complain about it. Tate said he’d talk to the RCI administration and address the problem. 

Public questions

Tate said he received 3 public questions. The first he read out loud: “When an individual in custody receives a program endorsement, PRC [program review committee] is using the mandatory release date to prioritize assignment… which puts old law individuals at the bottom of the list. Then, each time they come before the commission, they receive a deferral because the requirements to complete the program have not been met. How is an individual to receive parole?” Tate insisted that people are not necessarily put at the bottom of the list. He said there is a balance between old law and TIS, given limited programming resources in the DOC.

He said the commission will continue to endorse and advocate for people to be enrolled in programs, and that he is communicating expectations to the PRC. He said: “I’m indicating our expectation… that people will be at least enrolled [in an endorsed program] before the deferral period ends.” He said that a few things are shifting in a positive direction, that people are getting enrolled more quickly. 

As we discussed in previous parole meeting notes, the best thing for Tate to do in this situation is to require programming less often. The old-law population are all older people, most are past the age of desistance, meaning they present a lower public safety risk. By requiring them to complete programs before release, Tate is adding strain on programming resources, which means denying programming to people sentenced under TIS, who tend to be younger, higher-risk, and who are going to be released regardless. If programs “rehabilitate” people or help public safety outcomes, Tate’s choice to take up space and resources with low-risk old law people is having a negative impact on public safety outcomes. Of course, requiring programs provides a pretext to keep a parolee stuck in the system, going up for hearings, and providing the parole commissioners a reason to exist and keep earning $80,000 a year or more salaries.  

When asked about this directly in the past, Tate refused to acknowledge the question at all. 

The second question Tate answered was: “when does the chair look at reviewing a recommendation?” He said he looks “at everything, PRC, conduct reports, anything the commissioner is considering.” He said he corroborates or evaluates the sources commissioners are citing, and that he might check a file transcript or review items that the commissioner didn’t weigh into their decision. 

According to a letter from Harlan Richards, who has been incarcerated for more than 35 years and tracking the practices of the commission and the DOC extensively, “The practice of spending hours and hours reviewing files prior to a parole hearing is a new practice started by [former commissioner and gross racist Danielle] LaCost and her cronies for the express purpose of finding excuses to justify denying release on parole. Before Truth In Sentencing (TIS) cut down the number of prisoners receiving parole hearings, most hearings did not last more than 15 minutes and dozens of prisoners received hearings by one commissioner in one day.” 

The last question was regarding why it was taking so long for meeting minutes to be published on the DOC site. Records assistant Oliver Bucchino explained that he now has access to post minutes directly to the website, so it should happen more quickly now. 

For myself, I’d like to apologize for these notes coming out a full week after the Sept 1 meeting. We at ABOLISHmke have been swamped with organizing for the SHUTEMDOWN2021 mobilization. We hope to have a faster turn-around with parole notes in October and going forward. 

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