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Incarceration

Substance abuse & Prisons

Wisconsin’s prison population – and corrections budget – have both exploded since 1980.  We now spend $1 billion a year to keep about 23,000 felons behind bars; that’s up from 4,000 prisoners 25 years ago. 

Much of the increase in the prison population is due to a “war on drugs” conducted in Milwaukee County, which has packed state prisons with persons convicted of selling or possessing a very small amounts of a controlled substance.

Treatment instead of prison is a viable alternative to incarceration for these and other drug and alcohol offenders.

Of the 23,000 people in Wisconsin state prisons, 2,900 (12.6%) are excellent candidates for diversion into treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration. They are serving time for low-level, non-violent offenses, have limited criminal histories and have an identifiable need for substance abuse treatment.

  • This group costs us $83 million a year, based on a per-prisoner cost of $28,622.
  • They could be treated in a supervised community setting for only $23.5 million, based on a cost of $8,100 per person.
  • That’s a savings of almost $60 million a year!


Judges are eager to have supervised treatment programs available as an alternative to incarceration; some have even stated on the record that prison is an ineffective and wasteful way to address crimes related to substance abuse.

Research demonstrates that substance abuse treatment is effective at reducing repeat offenses. For example, a study published in 2002 for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services concluded that existing addiction treatments work as well as treatments for other chronic medical illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma.
Source: Justice Strategies, “Treatment Instead of Prisons: A Roadmap for Sentencing and Correctional Policy Reform in Wisconsin.” January, 2006.

Milwaukee Sentinal article

Alcohol treatment court

The idea of an alcohol abuse treatment court has been under study by Waukesha County officials since at least the summer of 2003.

The concept is to get third-offense drunken drivers into a comprehensive program that includes intensive supervision and monitoring of treatment instead of just sending them to jail (but participants do still serve time in jail for their offenses).

This approach combines rewards for progress toward recovery with sanctions for failure to meet program requirements.
  • successful completion of treatment may result in less jail time;
  • failure to follow rules brings immediate punishment, with incarceration as the ultimate sanction.
Participants are required to maintain strict sobriety and are closely monitored. Program requirements include:
  • regular meetings with a case manager
  • regular court appearances in front of a judge who will actively monitor the individual’s case;
  • participation in counseling and self-help groups;
  • ongoing employment or community service; and
  • electronic monitoring, random urinalysis and unannounced home visits to check for substance abuse.
The dropout rate in this sort of program is roughly one-third.  But most of those who finish treatment have no further drunken driving arrests, based on experience in other states like New Mexico (10% re-arrest rate).  The overall success rate (about 60%) certainly beats the 95% relapse rate for substance abusers who go untreated.

As members of the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council, a number of high-level Waukesha County officials have been involved in planning the program.

  • Chief Judge Kathryn Foster is a strong supporter and has volunteered to take responsibility for presiding over the court.
  • Sheriff Dan Trawicki is for it.
  • So are County Executive Dan Vrakas and County Board Chairman Jim Dwyer.
  • District Attorney Paul Bucher has been skeptical but has been willing to give it a try
The program began enrolling participants in late May of 2006. It is funded by a three-year, $450,000 federal grant; after that, it will be necessary to find long-term monetary support to keep it going.
Sources:  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Waukesha County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council

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