People charged with violent crimes while on probation, parole or extended supervision could have those statuses revoked under a broad criminal justice bill passed Thursday by the state Assembly. The legislation also boosts staffing levels for district attorneys' offices in 40 counties and authorizes $350 million in borrowing to build a new prison.
The legislation was passed by the Senate last fall, but it will return to the chamber after being amended in the Assembly. The Senate is expected to return in March.
Under the bill, the Department of Corrections is required to recommend revoking probation, parole or extended supervision for anyone who is charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor while under the agency's purview.
Bill author Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, both shared stories of crime victims as they urged lawmakers to support the bill.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, shared a story from 17 years ago, when police notified him that a convicted felon had threatened to kill his wife, now-Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. He described the fear they went through every day as she went to work after police said they couldn't guarantee the man's extended supervision would be revoked.
Responding to Democrats who questioned the cost of sending more offenders back to prison and building a new facility, Kleefisch argued doing so would prevent innocent people from becoming victims.
"Will we spend money to build prisons or will we spend money on caskets?" he asked.
Brandjten said the measure could help prevent a "revolving door" of violent criminals who continue to re-offend.
"Some people need to have a little stiffer punishment in order for us to protect society," Sanfelippo said.
Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said the bill would put so many people behind bars that the state's prison population could become unmanageable. Goyke also predicted the legislation would not result in a dramatic reduction in crime.
The bill's passage comes the day after lawmakers came together to unanimously pass an overhaul of the state's juvenile corrections system. Goyke expressed disappointment with a bill he said goes in the opposite direction.
The state has "either no corrections policy or a schizophrenic one," said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Under an amendment offered by Reps. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, the state would fund 54 new assistant district attorney positions in 40 counties.
National guidelines recommend counties have one prosecutor for every 10,000 residents. A 2016 workload analysis shows that Wisconsin is 139 prosecutors short of what it needs. Seven counties are fully staffed. Eleven are operating at or below half of their staffing needs. The rest fall somewhere in between.
Under the measure approved Thursday, counties operating at staffing levels of less than 79 percent that requested positions in the 2017-19 budget would be eligible for the positions, and no county could receive more than two. The plan comes with a $4 million price tag.
"We need to make sure that justice is swift. We need to make sure that justice is certain," Nygren said, adding that backlogs in district attorneys' offices prevent victims from reaching resolutions.
Goyke argued if the Legislature is going to add prosecutor positions, it should also offer more funding for defense attorneys, judges and court reporters.
"If you’re going to add them to the system, add them throughout the entire system," he said.
The bill also sets aside $350 million to build a new adult prison, which lawmakers say is needed as the state's correctional facilities face overcrowding.
The allocation to build a new facility comes one day after legislators authorized a study to determine the feasibility of converting the state's current youth prison to an adult facility focused on substance abuse treatment.