State Rep. Scott Krug, R-Wisconsin Rapids, is no liberal. He is one of nine lawmakers who called for the arrest of federal officials who come to Wisconsin to implement Obamacare, he supports a "right-to-work" law here and Wisconsin Right to Life gives him a 100 percent "pro-life" rating.
However, on the issue of criminal justice, Krug often sounds like a progressive Democrat. A former Juneau County sheriff’s deputy who later administered a program in Wood County that helped to reintegrate inmates into society, Krug is adamant that the state imprisons far too many people, often wasting hundreds of millions of dollars turning people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction into hardened criminals.
This session, sitting on the Assembly Corrections Committee, Krug hopes to advance legislation that would redirect non-violent offenders from prison to rehabilitative programs.
With a governor who brags about his role in crafting the "tough on crime" measures that contributed to the status quo, it would seem all-but-impossible for Krug to win on such an issue. But it wouldn't be the first time Krug has accomplished something presumed impossible — he won his first election in 2010 by taking out former Rep. "Snarlin'" Marlin Schneider, the longest-serving member of the Assembly in state history.
He sat down with the Cap Times to talk about his views on prisons and inmates.
The Capital Times: The other day you told me that many Republicans think you sound like a Democrat when you talk about corrections. What's that about?
Rep. Scott Krug: Yeah, I hear that more often than not. What I try to convince people in my caucus of is that some of the principles I have when it comes to corrections are really, truly conservative principles. When you're talking about trying to find the best value for your dollar, you don't want to warehouse people at $28,000 a year when you can effectively do the same job for half of that, or you can do an effective job having (offenders) pay you to do it.
Plus we're still actually getting to our goals of rehabilitating people in the community, which we're not doing when we put people in a facility.
I don't know how the default position in the Republican caucus has typically been “lock 'em up and throw away the key.” I don't know where that philosophy came from.
CT: Isn't it about being tough on crime?
SK: It could be, but I can tell you that it's a lot tougher on crime when I'm having a guy report to a day program twice a day, three times a week, because I know he doesn't want to do that. The propensity of human nature is “if I have to do less, I probably will.” But if I have a guy report to me six times a week and have to go through drug testing, family counseling, all these other steps — that's a lot more burdensome on him than sitting in a jail cell and watching cable TV all day. Maybe that's just me, but it seems like they're getting the easy way out just sitting in jails.
CT: What do you think about the state of our prisons? Are people in prison getting rehabilitative services?
SK: I don't think they are getting nearly enough. The pendulum swings from punishment to rehabilitation and it just seems like in Wisconsin the pendulum has been stuck on punishment for the last two decades. I just had the secretary of (the Department of) Children and Families in here and we were talking about how difficult it is for people released from jails and prisons to get back into their family life because they have such huge burdens on the outside that were never dealt with while they were incarcerated. They have huge child support loads, they have huge restitution loads, they don't know their kids because they've been locked up for 10 or 15 years. How do you warehouse somebody for that long and expect them to go outside the cell doors and be a perfectly normal human being again? It just doesn't work.
Look at Minnesota. In Wisconsin we have twice as many people in facilities as we do in community protection programs, like probation. In Minnesota it's the inverse.
Their crime rates are just about the same as ours. If Minnesota can do the same thing we're doing for half the cost, I think the model of having more people supervised in the community as opposed to sitting in facilities is probably better. If all things are equal, and you could spend a billion dollars less every two years, you probably want to go with that model.
CT: So what did you think about ending the early-release program last year?
SK: Well that was one of my bills, actually. Because I don't think that if you have somebody who's been incarcerated for a year that letting them off the last two months with no new (rehabilitative) program at all helps them either. What you need to do is help them on the front end. We want to make sure that before somebody gets into the prison system that we weed out individuals (who can be helped) to prevent them from having that in-between period in prison where they're in prison, meeting new connections, meeting new drug dealers and learning how to be better criminals.
CT: But wasn't the idea of the early-release program to incentivize good behavior and participation in treatment programs?
SK: Yes and no. It goes back to who you want making those decisions. The program didn't ask a sentencing judge if it's OK to release this individual, it asked a non-elected bureaucratic board to release an individual if it meets their criteria.
CT: So who should go to prison?
SK: Violent criminals. If you have a propensity for violence, I don't know if we'll be able to rehabilitate you. There's just some things we can't fix. But when we're talking about nonviolent offenders — drug issues, financial issues — those aren't the people we need to be warehousing.
CT: But it seems that, even with violent criminals, we eventually allow people out for anything short of murder.
SK: I know, but the biggest effect I can have is with people with alcohol and other drug abuse issues. We have really effective treatment programs. If you have those issues, we can get you treatment for a better bang for our buck and make you a better citizen, because we know how to deal with those issues. If we don't know how to treat (violent criminals) right now, the best I can do is treat the people I know we can affect. I ran a drug court in Wood County for four years. I know we can make a difference for those individuals.
I ran the discharge planner program in Wood County ... making sure people who were being released didn't come back in, so if they had a problem they could call me and I'd make some referrals — tell them “Hey, go talk to this person, go do this — whatever I can do to help you not come back (to jail)." We took recidivism down from 81 percent to 18 percent in two years. All it took was for a local jail to fund one position.
CT: So how receptive are your Republican colleagues to your prison positions?
SK: It's tough to say. Some are very libertarian-minded individuals who get my viewpoint. Some are very fiscally conservative individuals who understand that viewpoint. The end game is the same for a lot of different people but it's about figuring out how to get to that end game with them. They want to take different routes to get there. A lot of Democrats have the same views as mine but they want to do a lot of different things along the way to get there.
There are individual Democrats I've talked to who think people should be released just to be released — that it's an inherently flawed system and people just don't deserve to go to prison for anything. My goal is to selectively figure out who deserves to be in prison and let those out that we can work with.
CT: Do you think in this increasingly polarized environment that a bill could pass without the support of Republican leadership? Perhaps a coalition of Democrats and a few Republicans, like you?
SK: I don't want to get to the point where we have to go to the floor and do a polling motion to get a bill out of committee (rather than have leadership push the bill) and get it passed that way. I'm realistic. I know sometimes that some of my ideas won't come to the floor. That's where my job is to build bigger coalitions and build on my relationships with people in leadership.