For the past few weeks, our ACLU of Wisconsin team has traveled around the state, raising our voices to demand that Wisconsin’s 2021-23 biennial budget reflects the will of the people -- one that is grounded in justice, equity and investment in communities—and especially in marginalized communities.

Although creating the state budget might not snatch daily headlines on the nightly news, it is one of the single most important responsibilities our elected officials have. The budget determines how we approach our most pressing public priorities, impacting everything from infrastructure and education to criminal justice and the environment.

The ACLU, our various coalition partners, and the people of Wisconsin know that we cannot build a more just state without a budget that sets out to do the same. Understanding that this process provides an opportunity to change the course of our state for the better, we went to work.

Even before Gov. Evers unveiled his first budget proposal in February, the ACLU of Wisconsin set up and facilitated budget action workshops for people who wanted to learn more about the budget process and trained people on how to share their story. We launched a multi-faceted social media campaign to draw attention to the budget and educate Wisconsinites on how it affects everyone, running ads, designing graphics, producing videos, writing blogs and more. We held four press conferences to encourage people to testify at budget hearings and share budget priorities and concerns. 

Once the governor’s budget was introduced, we began pushing even harder, advancing the case for constructive criminal justice reforms, like legalizing cannabis, promoting police accountability, investing in substance abuse and mental health treatment and diversion programs, raising the age of adult criminal prosecution to 18, and closing the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons and the Green Bay Correctional facility. We joined with organizations like Wisconsin Public Education Network, illustrating the through-line between the expansion of mass incarceration, divestment from public schools and the pervasive racial disparities present within both systems. 

Despite the decision to hold this year’s hearings in locations far from Wisconsin’s most populous areas, and although attendance at in-person Joint Finance Committee’s budget hearings was lower due to the pandemic, the people of Wisconsin’s message remained clear: the budget should invest in healing and divest from harm. We heard powerful testimony from people in Whitewater, Rhinelander and Menomonie who said that the current system desperately needs to change. 

Medical professionals, psychologists and those struggling with substance abuse shared their personal stories about how the addiction crisis has impacted their lives. Formerly incarcerated people not only shared testimonies, but helped us lead the charge, testifying that the expansion of access to quality treatment, instead of incarceration, was the answer to the epidemic. 

We listened to people sentenced as adults for crimes they committed as 17-year-olds recall traumatic incidents they experienced in adult correctional settings, highlighting the need for youth to be treated differently in the legal system. People from all walks of life traveled around the state to demand that our racist and ineffective system of mass incarceration be dismantled. 

We heard from educators, principals, deans, school superintendents and school staff from around the state who expressed support for more  resources to be allocated to Wisconsin’s public schools, to ensure that all Wisconsin students, regardless of race, disability and background, have the same opportunities necessary to thrive. 

We hope that members of the state’s Joint Finance Committee were listening to the message that Wisconsinites traveled around the state to impart to them: that our budget must reflect the goals and values of the communities that it serves.