When Judy’s husband was in prison, he appeared before the state’s parole commission over 16 times before he was released.
Each new deferrment of parole “was like a punch in the gut,” she said.
Judy, who did not want her last name identified, was part of a group of activists who came to the Capitol on Wednesday for a public hearing concerning the appointment of a new chair of the state’s parole commission.
They were hoping to find someone who would shake up the system, but expressed disappointment with the governor's pick.
“The system is dysfunctional, the parole chair is just a small piece of that, and he needs to recognize that,” Judy said. “I didn’t see anything that he’s planning on doing differently than what’s been done before.”
The Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety held a public hearing concerning the nomination of Daniel Gabler, who has already been serving in the role for a few months. The chair of the parole commission makes the ultimate decisions about which inmates will be released back into society.
Although the hearing was intended to be specifically about Gabler, members of WISDOM, a collective religious social justice organization, MOSES, an interfaith organization, and Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO) saw the hearing as an opportunity to speak out against what they consider unfair parole practices.
More activists showed up than expected, and the hearing had to move to a bigger room. Those wishing to comment on Gabler’s position had to wait several hours to speak.
Joan Duerst came from Madison, but said many other speakers at the hearing came from other cities around Wisconsin.
“We feel passionate about a broken parole system,” she said.
They wanted to ensure Gabler would not be confirmed “until he commits to a complete and public review of the parole process.”
In 2000, the state's truth-in-sentencing law took effect. It eliminated the possibility of parole, and was authored by Walker during his time in the Legislature.
But there are still about 3,000 Wisconsin prisoners who were sentenced before 2000, and 1,868 have reached their parole eligibility date.
Advocates argue that the judges who originally sentenced these inmates did so with the understanding that they would be eligible for parole, but the inmates are now being judged by truth-in-sentencing criteria.
“These 3,000 individuals are kind of stuck in a twilight zone,” said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, a member of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. She said attaining parole in Wisconsin is “like the camel trying to go through the eye of the needle.”
Advocates noted that inmates are often told they’ve served “insufficient time” as a reason to deny parole or are told to complete programming that their prisons don’t have the capacity to offer them, which Taylor compared to “saying you can go through the door, but the door is locked.”
Taylor asked Gabler what a “sufficient amount of time was,” and Gabler said that there was no formula to determine a sufficient amount of time, and that he considers many factors, including social connections, work skills and the attitude of the inmate.
“I can go back to my office this afternoon and let all 3,000 of these people out,” Gabler said. “But that’s not fair to these individuals, to be quite honest with you.”
He explained that they’ve spent a minimum 17 years in prison and often lack the soft skills needed to succeed, like the ability to cooperate with other individuals.
He also noted that those who remain in prison are often are those who committed serious crimes.
“We’re talking about the worst of the worst. We’re talking about killers and rapists,” Gabler said. He later clarified that he meant worst crimes, not worst people.
But many speakers took strong issue with the phrase “worst of the worst,” arguing to view inmates as people who made mistakes and can change.
“You don’t see these people as people, they’re a number,” Judy said.
Taylor also brought up a campaign ad from when Gabler ran for Milwaukee County circuit court judge in 2009. His ad attacked his opponent for defending a sex offender. Taylor called it “low-level nasty campaigning,” saying it implied certain criminals don’t deserve to be defended. She said she didn’t know if she could trust him to give inmates a “fair shake if you believe no one should even defend them.”
Gabler said he’s grown since then, and that he “stole” that particular campaign technique from other politicians.
State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, also a member of the committee, expressed concern that the percentage of prisoners released on parole had decreased in recent years.
Risser noted that he sees inmates working on Capitol grounds, saying he didn't see those workers as a risk to society. According to WISDOM, hundreds of prisoners go to work unsupervised every day.
Risser urged Gabler to use his role to “help clean this thing out,” and get inmates out of the “bottleneck” that prevents them from being released on parole.
Taylor also said Gabler was in a unique position to reform a broken system.
“You’re the only voice. You’re it,” Taylor said. “You are the person that my chairman and legislators on the other side of the aisle and the governor will listen to.”
The committee will hold an executive session concerning Gabler’s appointment in the next few weeks.