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Prisons for cash


MATT YORK - Associated Press

With all the talk about slashing government spending, you'd think the Department of Corrections would be part of the conversation. But Gov. Scott Walker has had little to say about the department, which at $2.5 billion was the third largest expenditure in the 2009-11 budget.

But he's had a lot to say about it in the past.

In 1999, I talked with Walker, who was then a state representative and the chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee. Walker had just introduced a bill that would privatize state prison operations. He also introduced a bill that would have opened up Wisconsin to the free market for inmates by allowing private corrections companies to open prisons in Wisconsin to house inmates from other states.

But with a Senate controlled by Democrats and opposition from Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the bills went nowhere.

An e-mail this week to Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie asking what the new governor's plans are for corrections went unanswered. But with a Republican sweep of the Legislature, you can expect big changes in the department.

It should be noted that Walker's choice of Gary Hamblin, former Dane County sheriff and until this week Division of Law Enforcement Services administrator for the state Department of Justice, to lead the department signals a note of moderation. Hamblin is an able, common-sense administrator who has earned the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike.

"I think the new secretary is a savvy and very experienced person," Walter Dickey, former Department of Corrections secretary and currently a faculty member at the UW Law School, told me on Tuesday. "I would say he's a very strong selection."

Dickey says Hamblin's voice will hopefully temper some of the hard-line positions of the new leadership in the state.

"He's a strong leader, and I think he's got a track record," Dickey says. "One hopes that his demonstrated leadership ability is going to lead people to have some trust in the direction that he would go."

Dickey says that direction should be toward community corrections, which he calls the key to relieving overcrowding and cost in the prison system.

"Given the budget situation and crowding situation you sort of hope they'll go in the direction of strengthening community corrections," he says. Otherwise, "you can't do anything about the crowding or about the cost."

But here's the sticking point.

"Strengthening community corrections frankly requires some investment," Dickey says. "We're going to have to put some money there."

By community corrections he's talking about probation, education, mental health and employment services, alcohol and drug rehab and all the other things that Democrats have been pushing for years.

In 2009, Democrats, who controlled the Legislature, inserted $20 million in the budget for such programs, but Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed $10 million of that.

At the same time, Doyle directed former Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch to release low-risk offenders who met certain criteria as a way to avert $1.2 billion in projected prison construction costs.

New Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder and incoming Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have blasted the early release program. So has Walker. And Assistant Senate Majority Leader Glenn Grothman told me a year ago that he was bucking party leadership by giving a thumbs-up to early release, but only as long as it didn't cost any money. So early release is dead.

At any rate, it never really had time to get off the ground. Raemisch said last May he had hoped to ramp up the program, which at that time had let 112 prisoners out early. Since that time, the department released an average of less than 40 per month. Raemisch was shooting for up to 60 per month. To date, only 389 have been released early.

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That's a drop in the bucket in a prison population of 21,734, which although down from the historic high of 23,797 in 2007, is well above the design capacity of the prison system.

After a three-year decline in the prison population, there's a good chance that Wisconsin will again be talking about what to do with a growing number of inmates. The effects of new, stiffer drunken driving laws that went into effect in July are still unclear. And with the dawning of a new law-and-order era, you can bet that early release is no longer on the table.

So law-and-order budget hawks have some choices. They can shovel more than a billion into new prisons and balloon a budget deficit already estimated at $3.3 billion. They can turn back the clock a decade and start shipping prisoners out of state.

Or they can privatize the system.

Corrections Corporation of America, which took the bulk of Wisconsin's 5,000 or so out-of-state inmates in the 1990s and early 2000s, is waiting to see what the state will do. The company owns and operates prisons or manages state-owned prisons in 19 states and the District of Columbia. And since Wisconsin reclaimed its inmates six years ago, CCA has retained a lobbyist in the state.

"Our purpose for maintaining a presence there is to continue to educate decision-makers on the merits of public-private partnerships," says CCA spokesman Steve Owen.

It's a patient company, and now that the time looks ripe, they'll be first in line.

"If and when the need is there, we certainly stand ready to help," says Owen.