A new study released on August 3 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that probation, parole, and other forms of supervisions, marketed as alternatives to incarceration, actually contribute to sending residents back to jail and prison.

The process feeds mass incarceration instead of providing an alternative path to successfully reintegrating into our communities. The study focuses on three states where research indicates that despite reforms the issue remains an underlying problem – including Wisconsin.

“Every leader in our state committed to ending mass incarceration and transforming our Criminal Justice System should be alarmed to see the findings of this initial research from the ACLU. The Evers Administration is already taking steps in the right direction to dramatically reduce the state’s incarceration rate because the simple fact is that from a both moral perspective and financial perspective, we cannot continue along this path of increased incarceration of Wisconsin residents,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.

The ACLU calls on pushing existing reforms farther, rerouting funding from supervision and incarceration to employment, housing, education, and voluntary, community-based substance use disorder treatment and harm reduction services, as well as mental health services. Wisconsin’s prison population has more than tripled since 1990 and the state is infamous for being home to the highest Black male incarceration rate in the country. In Milwaukee County, half of Black men in their 30s have been held in state prison.

“We should be seeking true alternatives to incarceration that don’t have the unintended effect of filling our prisons but instead divert residents from entering the system in the first place,” said County Executive Crowley. “Housing services, mental health services, job placement services, and more are all offerings we employ to try to prevent county residents from entering the system.”

The study, REVOKED: How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States, revealed rule violations led to most revocations resulting in incarceration. In the Badger State, the most common rule violations that trigger incarceration in are using drugs and consuming alcohol or entering bars. According to the ACLU study, once incarcerated for violations, even those considered minor, Wisconsinites generally remain incarcerated, and can remain in detention for long stretches of time before receiving any hearing.

In most cases individuals are kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions that lack adequate mental health services or access to effective drug treatment. The circumstances place immense pressure on people to admit to violations with the hope they will be released.

“What this study shows is that we need to invest more in those programs and our state needs to address the underlying conditions that put too many Wisconsin residents in a no-win situation once they enter prison – or put them at a disadvantage even before they’ve committed an offense at all,” added County Executive Crowley. “The time is now to rethink our systems and transform government into an entity that dismantles the racist systems and policies of the past and builds new and equitable services that provide the best possible outcomes for our residents.”

The violations often stem from disadvantage. Many cannot afford to pay supervision fees or other costs while support themselves and their families. Housing instability and homelessness often contribute to physical and mental health issues making it harder for people to keep jobs, attend mandated meetings, or regularly update their supervision officer with their current address.

The study also recognized the contribution of generational systemic discrimination throughout the United States. Racial bias leaves Black and brown people less likely to have resources that make navigating supervision feasible, such as financial security, stable housing, reliable transportation, and access to drug treatment and mental health services, compared to their white counterparts.

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American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

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