Having spent two decades in law enforcement, I believe it is my duty to call attention to lesser-known parts of our justice system that impact public safety. Wisconsin’s current probation and parole system keeps thousands of people cycling through a bureaucracy that destabilizes their lives and makes it more likely they’ll return to prison.
After investigating hundreds of cases as a detective, I know how important it is to focus our resources on the people who pose the greatest risk to public safety. With parole and probation, I see us doing the opposite. We are keeping more people on parole than our neighboring states do, and they stay on parole for twice as long. Yet the system is failing to reintegrate them into society -- we send people on parole and probation back to prison at higher rates than our neighbors do as well.
The probation and parole systems are driving incarceration because our approach to supervision is counterproductive. We know that people leaving prison need a job, an apartment, and family connections to keep them on a better path. Yet our probation and parole officers are charged with catching people in violation of a set of eighteen technical rules, from showing up for appointments to receiving approval to borrow money. In our state, 42% of new incarcerations are due to these technical violations, which keep our prisons full and help empty our pocketbooks.
I saw this failure firsthand with Brad, a man in his late twenties who read books constantly while on federal probation. After two years of abiding by all the rules, they said he failed his final drug test and put him back in prison for three months. Relapse is a normal part of recovery, and Brad needed to get back in control, not to sit in jail and lose his job, his apartment, and much of the progress he had made.
Instead of relying on surprise drug tests, we should expand access to addiction recovery services both before and after release. Instead of threatening someone if they can’t pay their probation fees, we should help them get employed. Instead of punishing someone for sleeping at their aunt’s house because they can’t find a place to live, we should help them find housing. To combat the root issues that lead people down the wrong path, we need more resources, not more punishment.
Probation officers burn out because they see the same people go down the same path over and over. We are asking them to enforce small, technical rules reactively, rather than providing strong support upfront.
Wisconsin’s bloated probation system also diverts resources away from pressing public safety needs. Our taxpayers spend more than $1 billion a year on corrections. Every dollar we spend imprisoning someone for a technical violation is a dollar lost for addressing legitimate public safety risks.
Our Wisconsin legislators should support public safety by recognizing the purpose of community supervision -- not to punish people unnecessarily, but to help stabilize them on a positive path.
Officer Dave Doddridge (Ret.) lives in Viroqua, WI. He served in law enforcement for two decades with the Los Angeles Police Department. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.