After someone gets released from prison, it is often said that they have paid their debt to society. We undo their handcuffs, unlock their cell doors and let them return to their families and friends, deeming them fully free to reenter society.
Freedom, under these circumstances, qualifies as the lack of physical confinement — a liberty regained the moment one steps foot off prison grounds. In so many ways, however, living free -- for the formerly incarcerated -- is never that simple. America’s criminal legal system casts a wide shadow that spreads well past the prison walls and looms long after the serving of a sentence.
One of the means through which freedom is impeded following incarceration lies in flawed extended supervision standards. After being let go from prison and granted parole, a returning citizen must follow the conditions of their supervisory agreements to remain a part of society. Although originally conceived as a potential pathway for early release, the parole system can be co-opted to place imprudent and burdensome restrictions on people’s lives.
There is perhaps no better case study of the pitfalls of parole than Wisconsin’s crimeless revocation policy. In our state, a person who is under supervision must abide by a set of 18 different technical rules, sanctioning not criminal actions but instead regulating routine behavior. These rules can be as minor as requiring a person to show up for appointments or receiving approval prior to borrowing money, but if violated, the consequences can be life-altering.
Crimeless revocation refers to the process by which an individual is sent back to prison not for reoffending, but for failing to abide by a technical rule. In practice, this results in thousands of people being sent to prison each year for doing something as innocuous as missing an appointment or taking a job without prior approval from the state.
In 2017 alone, well over three thousand Wisconsinites were revoked for technical violations, accounting for 45 percent of all new admissions to state prisons, representing the largest such group of those who were incarcerated that year. The cost of crimeless revocation is somewhere in the neighborhood of $197 billion dollars in taxes.
To say that putting a person in a cage for missing an appointment is bad policy seems self-evident. By keeping crimeless revocation on our books, Wisconsin is ripping apart families, choking local economies, and upending entire communities. In a state that is home to many heavily-incarcerated areas already, we can not afford to needlessly exacerbate the problem.
The solution to preventing crime and enhancing public safety lies not in draconian punishment but in community investment. By eliminating crimeless revocation, removing barriers to post-prison employment, and expanding other opportunities for people to access alcohol and drug treatment or mental health programs, we can build a more prosperous and free state.