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It's time for Wisconsin to get smart on justice  

Imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to crime, which traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities. It should be the last option, not the first. Yet Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. Decades of bad policies have torn families apart and cost our state billions.

The ACLU of Wisconsin's Campaign for Smart Justice is an unprecedented, multi-year effort to reduce Wisconsin's jail and prison populations by 50 percent and to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. With the support of community partners and organizations from across the political spectrum, we are pushing for smart policy solutions, advancing the leadership of people directly impacted by Wisconsin’s criminal justice system, and making sure politicians understand the urgency of smart justice reform.

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Why We Must End Mass Incarceration

We're at a tipping point in Wisconsin regarding our prison population. Wisconsin currently has no place to put any more prisoners. We have more people incarcerated than ever before - our system was built to house about 17,000. We're currently over 23,000, and the Department of Corrections says they have maxed out all available space that can be converted to house new inmates and they have almost filled the spaces that they are renting in jails across the state. The DOC has 65,000 people on community supervision.  We have 12,500 people in our county jails, many of them there awaiting trial (and thus they haven’t been proven guilty of anything).  This is an untenable situation.

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Get involved

The ACLU of Wisconsin's Campaign for Smart Justice is working with the coalition “Close MSDF” to close Milwaukee’s Secure Detention Facility, a state-run prison located in the city of Milwaukee.  Find more information about this campaign here:

You can also connect directly with our manager, Sean Wilson to volunteer or share your story by calling 414.272.4032 x 219.

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Expand the Earned Release Program in Wisconsin State Budget

Q.Expand the Earned Release Program in Wisconsin State Budget

The Problem:

Wisconsin’s prison population has experienced astronomical growth in recent years. Between 1980 and 2016, the state’s prison population increased 456% to more than 22,000 people.[i]  Many of those men and women have been sentenced into Wisconsin’s Substance Abuse Program, better known as Earned Release. This is a six-month intensive, federally-approved program designed to reduce future criminal behavior by addressing criminal thinking and substance use disorders.


Currently, there are over 3,500 people on the waiting list for this program and only 750 beds. Expanding this program will give individuals necessary treatment and contribute to their positive reintegration back into society. The Earned Release Program offers cognitive-based substance abuse curricula which addresses social skills building, problem solving, family dynamics, anger management, and employability.


Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people who were admitted to Wisconsin prisons with drug convictions[ii] increased 18%, from 2,072 to 2,448. Over that same period, the number of people admitted to prison with an opioid offense increased nearly 13-fold, growing from 78 people (4% of all drug offenses) to 998 people (41% of all drug offenses). Overall, drug offenses made up 20% of new admissions[iii]  to Wisconsin prisons in 2018.[iv]


According to a 2015 DOC report, Washington, Green Lake, Manitowoc, and Waupaca counties have the highest percentages of opioid abuse prison admissions; Green, Racine, Kewanee, Rock counties for cocaine admissions; and Taylor, Bayfield, Dunn and Douglas Counties for methamphetamine admissions.[v]


Incarceration in response to conviction of a crime committed as a result of alcohol or drug addiction is only one of the many ways substance abuse negatively affects lives. A 2017 Department of Corrections report shows that 69% of admitted prisoners had a substance abuse need.[vi] Couple this with rising usage of methamphetamine, fentanyl and other drugs, and we’re facing the local fallout of a national epidemic.[vii] Methamphetamine usage alone cost Wisconsin over $424 million in 2015.[viii]


The Solution:

Without treatment, substance abusers are extremely likely to continue fueling their addictions, regardless of convictions.  This Earned Release Program has several criteria for enrollment. An individual must not be convicted of a violent offense; have an identified substance abuse treatment need; and be deemed eligible by the sentencing judge.


If the judge finds the person eligible and they successfully complete the 6-month alcohol and other drug abuse treatment program, their remaining incarceration time will be converted to extended supervision and they will be released.  This successful completion means a sentence reduction of an average of 380 days.


Expanding the Earned Release Program will provide a release valve allowing those who successfully complete to return to their local support networks, continue extended supervision, receive specialized treatment to directly mitigate their addictions, and remove some financial and personnel burdens from our overcrowded prison system.  Proposals to expand Earned Release Program will result in savings to taxpayers, reduce prison populations while cutting prison costs and m


[i] BJS, Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool

[ii] Note: Some individuals admitted to prison have been convicted of multiple offenses. In this paragraph, offense breakdowns include anyone with any drug offense conviction and may not reflect the most serious offense for which that person may be serving time. 

[iii] Note: This does not include people revoked to prison (for technical violations or new crimes), people being held temporarily pending revocation, or individuals for whom offense data is not available. In fiscal year 2018, 11,750 people were admitted to Wisconsin prisons, including 4,184 people labeled “No Data/Unsentenced,” meaning they were either incarcerated pending revocation or the DOC did not have offense data for them. Additionally, 5,548 people were admitted to prison from community supervision, either for a technical violation or a new crime. This paragraph only includes the remaining 2,888 people who were not included in the revocation admissions or the “No Data/Unsentenced” population.

[iv] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Adult Corrections Program: Informational Paper 54 (January 2019). Note: Admissions data in this paragraph refers to fiscal year.


End Crimeless Revocation in Wisconsin

Q.End Crimeless Revocation in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s prison population grew at unprecedented rates between 1980 and 2016, when it increased 456% to more than 22,000 people.[i] As of December 2018, more than 23,000 people were imprisoned in the state, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections predicts that the prison population will continue to grow in the near future, surpassing 25,000 people by 2021.[ii]

The Problem:

Crimeless revocations of community supervision, also known as technical violations, send individuals back to prison for violating a rule of supervision that does not involve committing a new crime.  These revocations, for violations of supervision rules as minor as borrowing money, missing an appointment, or accepting employment without prior approval, accounting for 37% of all admissions to Wisconsin prisons in 2017.[iii]   The number of crimeless revocations to prison increased 25% between 2000 and 2017 (from 2,748 to 3,442) — representing the greatest increase of any admission type[iv].

Under Wisconsin’s current extended supervision system, roughly 66,000 people are under probation or parole supervision.  This is 5,000 more people than are under supervision in Alaska, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined.[v]  Because community supervision sentences are also longer than many other states, half of those under supervision are serving time behind bars due to revocation without any new convictions.[vi] People reincarcerated without a new offense in Wisconsin will spend an average of 1.5 years in prison, costing taxpayers $147.5 million.[vii]

The Solution:

  • The legislature should eliminate incarceration as a response to crimeless violations of supervision rules.
  • The legislature should look to reduce probation and parole terms to between 1 and 3 years, except in rare circumstances.
  • Wisconsin should provide credit against the term of extended supervision for every month spent in compliance with the terms of supervision.[viii]
  • Wisconsin should ensure people under community corrections supervision are not incarcerated, even for short-term holds, unless criminal activity is suspected. In cases where criminal activity is suspected, Wisconsin should require judicial review before a person is incarcerated, with the same level of due process proceedings that would be expected for a member of the public who is not under community corrections supervision.[ix]
  • Wisconsin should also require that revocation proceedings only follow after, not in place of, full criminal proceedings and conviction. This ensures appropriate due process, and avoids unnecessary incarceration.[x]

[i] BJS, Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool

[ii] Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin’s Prison Population on the Rise (10/31/2018).

[iii] WI DOC, Prison Admissions Dashboard, (accessed 12/18/2018). 

[iv] The WI DOC classifies admissions as “New Sentence Only,” “Revocation – New Sentence,” “Revocation Only,” and “Other.” “Revocation only” refers to people who are revoked for violating supervision and have not committed a new crime.

[v] Williams, et al.; Wis. Div. of Cmty. Corr., 2018: A Year in Review 7 (2018),

[vi] Williams, et al..

[vii] Satinsky, Sara, Logan Harris, Lili Farhang, and Gus Alexander. 2016. Excessive Revocations: The Health Impacts of Locking People Up Without a New Conviction in Wisconsin. Oakland, CA: Human Impact Partners. Available:

[viii] The Badger Institute, Criminal Justice Reform Recommendations for Wisconsin Policymakers: Policy ideas from the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Coalition (2018).

[ix] Columbia University Justice Lab, The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story (12/2018).

[x] Columbia University Justice Lab, The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story (12/2018).


Stop Prison Expansion in Wisconsin

Q.Stop Prison Expansion in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s prison population has experienced astronomical growth in recent years. Between 1980 and 2016, Wisconsin’s prison population increased 456% to more than 22,000 people.[i] As of December 2018, more than 23,000 people were imprisoned in the state, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) predicts that the prison population will continue to grow in the near future, surpassing 25,000 people by 2021.[ii]

We all want to live in safe and healthy communities, and our criminal justice policies should be focused on the most effective approaches to achieving that goal. But the current system has failed us. It’s time for Wisconsin to dramatically reduce its reliance on incarceration and invest instead in alternatives to prison, including approaches better designed to break the cycle of crime and recidivism by helping people rebuild their lives.

The Problem:

These trends in incarceration come at a high cost to the people of Wisconsin. Between 1985 and 2017, as the state’s prison population more than quadrupled, and spending on corrections from the state’s general fund skyrocketed, growing 302% and far outpacing growth in other state spending priority areas such as education.  The forecasted increase in Wisconsin’s prison population requires nearly $164 million in additional funds for the DOC’s 2019-2021 state budget request. [iii]

According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, Wisconsin spends more on corrections than the national average, and more than our neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa.  This is because we incarcerate a larger share of our population than they do.

The Solution:

  • Do not expand the number of beds available in the DOC budget. 
  • Do not build a new prison.

Consider utilizing some of the prison population release valves, such as expanding treatment programs, expanding the earned release program, eliminating crimeless revocations, etc.  You can look at how specific policy suggestions impact Wisconsin’s prison population and associated funding on this tool from the Urban Institute here:


[i] BJS, Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool

[ii] Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin’s Prison Population on the Rise (10/31/2018).

[iii] Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin’s Prison Population on the Rise (10/31/2018).


COVID-19 Response

Q.COVID-19 Response

Around the country, COVID-19 has spread at unparalleled rates inside jails, prisons and detention centers. These facilities are often overcapacity, unsanitary, not conducive to social distancing, and notoriously bad at providing healthcare. 


Since the start of the pandemic, we have been calling upon state leaders to put in place measures that would combat the spread of an outbreak in correctional facilities, providing the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the 72 County Sheriffs who oversee the local jails recommendations for how to best prepare facilities to handle the virus. 

Shortly thereafter, we called on Governor Evers and other criminal legal system stakeholders to heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

Throughout this work, we have insisted that public officials respond to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of individuals identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis. According to a new ACLU data model, COVID-19 could claim an additional 100,00 lives if jail populations aren't immediately and dramatically reduced.

We've also been working to address the profound racial disparities within our criminal legal system. On April 20th, the ACLU released a landmark report on marijuana arrests which found that Black people in Wisconsin are 4.2 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Those deep inequities are central to why we are continuing to advocate for legalization in Wisconsin.

In an effort to move the Evers administration to act, we launched a petition demanding the governor take immediate action to release vulnerable populations from jails and prisons, an effort which is necessary to save lives. 

Beyond protecting people in jails and prisons, we have also advocated for changes to immigration enforcement, urging county sheriffs to protect public health by refusing to work with ICE and speaking out against those who have. 

We have ramped up our public advocacy efforts in hopes of persuading Governors Evers and the DOC to take immediate action to release vulnerable people from state prisons, as facilities remain ill-suited for social distancing. We've launched a petition, collecting signatures from the people of Wisconsin who demand that the governor follow through on his campaign pledge to reduce the prison population by half.

In June, the ACLU released a report with the Prison Policy Intitative which evaluted all 50 states' response to COVID-19 in jails and prisons. While state leaders have claimed that they have done enough to effectively minimize the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, our report suggests otherwise, giving Wisconsin a failing grade. 


On April 10th, we filed a lawsuit in the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking the release of vulnerable people from prisons and jails. We’re asking the court to order Governor Evers and the Department of Corrections to reduce the prison population down to a level where social distancing is possible, giving priority people who face the most risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

To date, Wisconsin has only reduced its prison population by 1.3 percent -- not nearly enough to combat an outbreak of this deadly disease. We will keep you updated on how the case progresses, but we urge you to call Governor Evers and ask him to save lives and stop the spread of the pandemic in prisons and jails.

On April 24th, the state Supreme Court denied our petition, joining Governor Evers and the Department of Corrections in failing to recognize the urgency of getting vulnerable people out of harm's way. But this is not time to give up. The ACLU of Wisconsin has continued to explore every path available to safeguard the health of incarcerated people and avert a public health catastrophe. 

Community Outreach

Every week, our Smart Justice team holds virtual town halls, bringing in various advocates and experts to talk about how the community can rally for change and help incarcerated people.

We've also filed a public records request with the Wisconsin DOC and the Trump Administration seeking information on what public officials knew about the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on prisons and the communities surrounding them.