Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

The 2009-10 legislative session review: Releasing felons early

You might call it Operation Jailbreak.

During the 2009-11
state budget deliberations, a provision was inserted and approved to allow early release privileges for convicted felons. At the time I wrote:

“Suggestions to save the state over $2 billion and ease prison overcrowding involve locking up fewer criminals and releasing many from custody early. The Council of State Governments Justice Center has made a series of recommendations to the state Legislature. They include alternatives that result in reduced incarceration. That is a recipe for even greater costs and harm to society. Wisconsin cannot afford this open door policy for criminals.”

I added the following:

“Why is the prison population growing? The Capital Times also examined the Council of State Governments Justice Center report, writing that, ‘A majority of inmates are incarcerated because they re-offend or violate the terms of their release. In 2007, 55 percent of prison inmates had violated terms of their parole, probation or extended supervision or were re-offenders who had committed a new crime.’ And we want to release more of them earlier? Certainly, inmates inside prison cost the state. Do not forget all the costs of criminals to society.” 

Legislation that I co-sponsored was introduced to immediately repeal the early release program. I was also one of 45 state legislators to sign a letter to Governor Doyle requesting that he immediately stop his early release of felons. Our letter to Governor Doyle reads in part:

“In the interest of public safety and in light of the suspension of a similar program in Illinois, we are respectfully asking you to consider an immediate repeal of the early release program.

Chief among our concerns is the threat this program poses for compromising public safety. Out of the 21 offenders who were released this week, many of them have a history of serious felony convictions. Most could be classified as career criminals who have been in and out of the corrections system their entire life.

Furthermore, the fact that this program does not rely on judges, prosecutors, or law enforcement to determine whether these inmates are safe for release makes it even more likely that new crimes will be committed.

Also, communities are not being notified when these felons are being released.”

Our letter was ignored by Governor Doyle.

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute did an independent analysis of the criminal backgrounds of the first 22 offenders released early and reports, “The 22 inmates together have been convicted of at least 150 crimes and that, in nearly 70% of the cases, judges earlier denied their requests for early release.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “A review of court records for (Derrick) Parnell and other offenders from Milwaukee who have been released shows that several of the men - convicted of a range of felonies including drug dealing and identity theft - have extensive criminal records and a history of returning to crime during previous stints on the streets.”

When Governor Doyle announced the early release program during early 2009, he said that up to 3,000 of the more than 22,000 inmates in the state prison system would be eligible for early release. As of late April 2010, 138 offenders had been released from state prisons under this program, according to the Department of Corrections.

Here is the latest. My colleague, state Representative Scott Suder says he plans to request an audit of the state's early release program. As a member of the Legislative Joint Audit Committee, I wholeheartedly welcome such an audit. Representative Suder calls the early release program, “a dangerous social experiment,” and I concur.

Releasing felons early is also an insult to the outstanding law enforcement, prosecutors and judges in this state that do the heavy lifting and lock criminals up in the interest of public safety, only to see their efforts wasted when Governor Doyle releases them early.

Representative Suder is also considering legislation to eliminate the early releases. I would strongly support the legislation.

The incredibly risky procedure of releasing dangerous prisoners must end before an innocent citizen is victimized by a freed inmate that should have been behind bars.  During the previous to last legislative session when I served on the state Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections, I witnessed first-hand the sentiment that Wisconsin should cut back on Corrections, open the cell doors and let more prisoners go. I do not subscribe to the theory that we cannot afford corrections, especially with various categories of violent crime increasing. Given our economic status, the situation could get worse. The truth is the state cannot afford not to put prisoners away.

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