The Larson Report Progressive perspectives from Senator Chris Larson
When the 2022 Midterms ended last fall, many of my friends and neighbors breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that the political ads using crime as a tool to shame the opposition might finally subside. With the race for State Supreme Court on April 4th in full swing, it’s abundantly clear that those hopes were unfounded. Contrary to what you might see on TV, the Supreme Court does not try criminal cases, and most of what they do is review laws and the applications of those laws to make sure they align with our state and federal constitutions.
Welcome to Part II of our ongoing series Getting Smart on Crime, where we explore the criminal justice system in Wisconsin and how it might be improved. In Part I, we detailed the rise of mass incarceration, which has hit our state especially hard, and how a constitutional Amendment that will appear on the April 4 ballot could make this problem worse at a time when other states and the federal courts are moving in the opposite direction.
Today, we turn our focus to matters of cost - the costs of defunding our communities, the costs of mass incarceration, and the tremendous opportunity we now have to change course.
Defunding our communities
Like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster, “Defund the Police” is one of those legends that everyone seems to have heard of, many believe to be real, but has never been witnessed in real life. What is real,however (and having a devastating impact),is the long history of the Wisconsin Legislature defunding our communities. They've done this by cutting and eventually flattening shared revenue to local governments, instituting draconian spending restraints on those same governments, and severely limiting the tools available to municipalities and counties to raise revenue.
This austerity spiral has forced cuts to just about every area of local government, from schools to snowplows, fire departments to forestry, parks to pavement, and everything in between. In fact, just about the only things that haven't been on the chopping block at the local level over the past decade and a half have been police budgets. In Milwaukee, for example, the Police Department budget was $207 million in 2006, rising as high as $305 million in 2020 (it currently sits at $300 million). Other departments saw much smaller increases, while some actually decreased in non-inflation-adjusted dollars over that same time span.
This is partly due to Act 10, which exempted police officers and firefighters from the sweeping benefit cuts that our teachers, corrections officers, and other public workers have had to endure since 2011. It also has to do with political incentives that make cutting police the option of last resort for most local elected officials, in small towns and big cities alike.
However, in the past few years, things have gotten so bad for local governments across Wisconsin that cuts to law enforcement have actually started to occur. In 2018-2019, for example, nearly 14% of WI municipalities reduced spending on law enforcement. They did this not because they wanted to, but because they had no other choice. It’s not that we don’t have the money - it’s that the state is hoarding a greater share while leaving local communities behind.
Since the legislature began restricting local property tax collections in 2006, state income tax collections have been on the rise. They climbed from $6.1 billion in 2006 to $9.2 billion each of the past 2 years, an increase of 50%. Meanwhile, state shared revenue payments over that same time span have declined by $106 million, and that’s before accounting for losses due to inflation. Because Wisconsin’s state funding for law enforcement is the lowest in the entire nation, when local governments are strained, so too is our ability to pay for police (and everything else).
At the same time the legislature has been defunding our communities in Wisconsin, we’ve poured obscene amounts of money into our prison system. From 1978 to 2010, the incarcerated population increased 677%. In 2022, the Department of Corrections (DOC) budget was $1.43 billion, which includes adult and juvenile prisons, probation and parole, and facilities costs.
The adult prison population in 2021 was about 20,000 people at any given point in time, with about 7,000 people admitted and released during the year. In prior years, the population has been closer to 24,000, with a significant reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Wisconsin typically has about 44,000 people on probation, 20,000 people on parole, and 13,000 people in local jails (Prison Policy Initiative). Local jail costs are not included in DOC’s budget, and vary widely by municipality and county.
While DOC reports the cost of adult incarceration in Wisconsin at about $73 per day, or $27,000 per year (2018), third-party estimates report figures closer to $38,000 (Vera Institute - 2015). As high as these numbers seem for adults, the cost of youth incarceration is far higher, and has risen dramatically in recent years. For example, in 2021, DOC reported the cost to incarcerate one juvenile boy was $343,615 per year, and the cost to incarcerate each juvenile girl was $812,252 per year, or $2,225 per day! These figures represented a jump of 250% and 41% year-over year, respectively.
It’s easy to become numb to these numbers, however staggering they may be. To put them in perspective:
Annual cost of UW-Milwaukee Undergraduate Tuition, Books, Meals, and Housing - $21,306
Annual cost of 1-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee (rent.com) - $17,280 per year
Major League Baseball Minimum Salary (2021) - $570,500
That’s right, for the cost to incarcerate a single juvenile girl in 2021, we could pay the salary of 1.4 MLB rookies. But if we are going to assess the full cost of incarceration in our state, we can’t just look at direct costs. We have to look at the opportunity costs of keeping tens of thousands of Wisconsin adults behind bars - not working, not spending money in their communities, just sitting in a cell. Meanwhile, the people they leave behind, including children, are exposed to a lifetime of consequences of not having their father or mother around to care for them.
Research from Florida State University sought to quantify these hidden costs of incarceration, and what they found was devastating. Each year, incarcerated people lose an average of $33,066 in potential earnings, costing our economy $70.5 billion annually. The families of incarcerated people suffer greater risk of criminality themselves, as well as higher divorce rates, decreased property values, increased reliance on public assistance programs, homelessness, increased risk of death, and more. In total, the burden on families of people who are incarcerated totals $531 billion per year nationwide. The total burden of incarceration in the United States is over $1 trillion per year, or nearly $3,000 for every man, woman, and child.
A golden opportunity
It doesn’t need to be this way. For the current two-year budget cycle ending this June, Wisconsin is on track for a $7.1 billion surplus, and we continue to have a record balance in our “rainy day fund” of $1.7 billion. What happens next will have huge impacts on every area of state and local government, but for now, we’re going to focus on the impacts to public safety and criminal justice.
So what should we do with $7.1 billion? It’s not a question many people this side of Elon Musk or Bill Gates ever have to ask, but it’s the unique position Wisconsin finds itself in right now. Republicans seem determined to give as much of it back to the rich as they possibly can - $5 billion per year if their so-called “flat tax” bill goes through. But what if we used the surplus to invest in solutions that make our communities safer and ultimately save us money in the long run? Surpluses may come and go, but good government is forever. If we make the investments we need to make today, we are better equipped to handle whatever might come our way in the years and decades to come.
We could continue pouring money into our prisons, but time and experience have shown this to be a losing proposition, for all the reasons listed above. At a minimum, we must boost local government shared revenue to where it was before the cuts and restrictions of the early 2000s and beyond. That would certainly help solve the law enforcement funding problem, and would go a long way to restoring many of the priorities we’ve had to move away from at the local level - like our parks, roads, fire departments, and other essential services.
For his part, Governor Evers has proposed a significant boost to shared revenue in his most recent budget proposal. It would allocate 20% of state sales tax revenue and send it back to local governments as shared revenue. For Milwaukee, this would amount to a 35% increase - or about $82 million additional dollars per year, without raising taxes. Evers’ budget would also allow communities to go to referendum to increase sales tax by 1 cent on the dollar if voters approve.
This type of investment in local government is welcome and I fully support it being included in the budget. Service cuts and fee increases that have plagued local taxpayers could be reversed, and as sales tax collections rise over time due to inflation, cities and counties will automatically enjoy the benefit of those increases, without having to beg the legislature for an increase every budget cycle.
If we stopped there, we’d be immensely better off than we are right now. I will fight like hell to make sure that shared revenue increases and an equitable use of our budget surplus are a part of the final budget this summer. But as I discussed in Part 1 of this series, our justice system as it exists now is broken. If all we do is reinvest in the same approaches we’ve been using for decades, the shameful racial and economic disparities that exist in our justice system (and especially in policing) will persist. To build a system that works for everyone and that undoes the injustices of the past, we have to go several steps further.
There’s no denying that we imprison way too many people at way too high a cost in Wisconsin. We have failed to invest in our communities, and have instead relied on back-end solutions to problems we should be addressing on the front end. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in real solutions that put us on a path to a safer, more equitable Wisconsin, and we must take it before it’s too late. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, where we discuss humane, cost-effective approaches to improving public safety that don’t rely on mass incarceration or the creation of a police state to achieve.