MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's criminal justice system is doing an average job, at best, at rehabilitating prisoners, according to most voters who responded to a recent Marquette University Law School poll.
The poll released last week asked 804 registered Wisconsin voters to rate how they think the system is doing at turning inmates into contributing members of society. A little more than 41 percent said the system was doing a fair job and 31 percent said the state was doing a poor job. Almost 18 percent said it was doing a good job and 3.6 percent said it was doing an excellent job.
The poll is merely a snapshot of current public opinion, but it could provide prison reform advocates more fuel as they push the state Department of Corrections for changes. WISDOM, an umbrella organization of church congregations from around the state, launched a high-profile campaign earlier this month to pressure the DOC to release more prisoners on parole, release aging inmates, alleviate overcrowding and end solitary confinement, which the group likens to torture.
The Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project at Madison's First Congregational Church of Christ, a part of the WISDOM coalition, acknowledged that the respondents likely don't have intimate knowledge of rehabilitation efforts in Wisconsin prisons. But he said the results underscore an overall feeling that the system is failing.
"They do have some general sense of a system that is not working the way they were promised it would work," Hancock said. "They were promised in exchange for massive expenditures of money they were promised an effective correctional system that would rehabilitate people and return people to society better than they were before. That promise has not been delivered."
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab didn't respond to phone or email messages seeking comment.
The DOC has grown into one of the state's most expensive agencies. Its prisons held 22,125 people as of July 18 and they cost about a billion dollars annually to operate. Recidivism rates, a key measure of rehabilitation efforts' success, have generally been dropping over the last 20 years, however.
Marquette law professor Michael O'Hear, who wrote the questions and favors early release, acknowledged that the results reflect a perception that may not be based on personal knowledge of the prison system's workings.
He plans to cross-reference the responses to the rehabilitation question with answers to another question asking if the respondent or an immediate family member has ever been charged with a crime, believing that might identify a pool of people with more experience with the criminal justice system. For now, he said, all he can conclude is people are generally dissatisfied with the system and want to move away from "warehousing" prisoners.
DOC Secretary Ed Wall sent a memo to agency employees in April saying that inmates in solitary need a rehabilitative experience and promising to work with other states and mental health professionals over the next year to develop better ways to deal with inmates who end up in solitary.
A legislative study committee formed this summer to review how court-ordered treatment programs have affected recidivism and the state's incarceration expenses. University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Kit R. Van Stelle told the committee earlier this month that treatment programs have led to 90,318 prison days averted and 141,215 jail days averted in nine counties between 2007 and 2013. Committee members are expected to submit recommendations on how lawmakers can improve the programs next month.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he wouldn't support any early release program but he's open to looking at reforms to give judges and prosecutors more alternatives to sending people to prison.
"Any changes we look at, any reforms, going forward have to be at the front end, not the tail end," the governor said.