State representatives concerned about reducing government spending should take a hard look at Wisconsin’s prison system. The size of our criminal legal system has grown exponentially thanks to decades of gross fiscal irresponsibility, and it’s time that we, as taxpayers, do something about it.

Year after year, Wisconsin pours billions of dollars into the criminal justice system, siphoning public funding away from essential community services in an effort to extend the failed project of mass incarceration. Between 1985 and 2017, spending on corrections in the state rose by an unparalleled 302%, and it continues to rise. Even as budgets for public services like education and healthcare face increasing financial pressure, funds for jails and prisons continue rolling in, using a seemingly endless supply of tax dollars regardless of their lack of success.

Our corrections system, which has proven for decades to be an abject failure, continues to benefit from strong financial support that it simply hasn’t earned. There is now even bipartisan agreement on the need for change, but instead of enacting policies that would bring about that change, our lawmakers continue to throw more and more money at incarceration. Each dollar we spend imprisoning someone for drug possession or violating parole, for instance, is a dollar we can’t spend on legitimate public safety priorities or getting people the treatment and support they need to get back on their feet. 

With the 2021-22 state budget process already in the works, now is a great time to start rethinking how we pay for our prisons. 

The most obvious way to reign in reckless corrections spending is to make the system smaller. The ACLU has long supported closing select state prisons. As part of our state budget advocacy campaign, we are asking Gov. Evers and the state legislature to close Green Bay Correctional Facility, which has been at the center of some Republican-led reform efforts due to its outdated and dilapidated conditions. Closing Green Bay Correctional would save the state an estimated 38.8 million per year. 

The state should also consider reallocating funding that typically goes toward incarceration into other more effective, cost-friendly solutions, including substance abuse treatment. In 2018, 20% of all Wisconsin prison admissions were due to drug offenses, a 13-fold increase over the past two decades. The Treatment Alternative and Divestment Program offers an opportunity for people to get help to overcome substance abuse disorders. Keeping people with drug offenses out of prisons would promote healing, lessen prison overcrowding, and cut incarceration-related expenses.

Reforming community supervision practices, such as crimeless revocation, would reap huge rewards for Wisconsin. Each year, thousands of people are thrown back into prison for technical probation and parole violations, like missing an appointment or taking a job without prior approval from the state. Wisconsin’s harmful practice of crimeless revocation is perpetuating a vicious cycle of mass incarceration that destroys lives, destabilizes communities, wastes taxpayer money, and fails to make us safer. 

The bottom line is that prisons are a terrible investment that will never pay off, and we need to spend our hard-earned taxpayer dollars on services that will build communities, not tear them apart. We can and must do something different, and the ongoing state budget discussions present a perfect opportunity to do so. We can build a system that keeps us safer and saves us money in the process.