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