Wisconsin's probation program falls short on monitoring, audit finds

According to a nonpartisan legislative audit, Wisconsin's community supervision program isn't meeting deadlines for investigations and risk assessments as Department of Corrections staff report frustrations.

Associated Press

April 7, 2023

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An entrance sign near the top of a  concrete-masonry building includes a Wisconsin state seal and letters spelling out Department of Corrections, with a surveillance camera mounted from the edge of the roof.

(Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Faced with heavy workloads and short staffing, Wisconsin’s probation and parole program has been falling short on monitoring offenders and offering them rehabilitation resources, according to a nonpartisan legislative audit published April 7.

Auditors found that the Department of Corrections, which also oversees the state’s substantially understaffed prisons, has not completed required risk assessments or investigations of people on release or probation quickly enough. The agency also did not adequately review the penalties it imposed on people who violated the terms of their release to see which consequences were most effective at preventing re-offense, auditors said. The agency disagreed with many of the auditors’ findings.

More than 63,000 people are part of Wisconsin’s community corrections program. Most are on probation, meaning they were sentenced to supervision instead of prison time, or on extended supervision, which is served after release from prison.

Some people receive services such as housing assistance or treatment for substance abuse through the program, but corrections agents said they believed many people under their supervision weren’t getting the help they needed — especially in areas including child and health care, education and mental health.

According to the audit, corrections staff didn’t have a central database to track whether people fulfilled the treatments or programs they were required to complete, and check-in programs were administered inconsistently across the state. But the corrections department said in response that it is not required by law to do either of those things. Each person’s progress is tracked by the agent assigned to them, the department said, and rehabilitation programs were designed to adapt to communities’ needs.

In a news release on April 7, Republican Sen. Eric Wimberger, co-chair of the Legislature’s audit committee, laid blame on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for the issues the nonpartisan audit discovered. Conservative groups attempted to brand Evers as soft on crime during his bid for reelection in 2022, and Evers and Republicans have disagreed on how to address crime rates and problems in prisons.

Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.

Between 2019 and 2022, the time period auditors examined, the Department of Corrections cited roughly 57,000 participants for more than 380,000 violations of the terms of their supervision, including broad restrictions against possessing drugs or alcohol, visiting certain places or people, or failing to attend required treatment.

More than half the violations were non-criminal, and most were for using drugs or alcohol. Less than 7% were violent criminal offenses.

Corrections agents were most likely to address violations with short jail stays, according to the audit. The next most popular options revoked someone’s release altogether or issued a warning.

Consequences varied based on the seriousness of the violation, but most corrections agents said they were frustrated by a push to use methods other than revoking someone’s release, since they didn’t believe those options protected the public or held offenders accountable. The corrections department, in its response, said auditors should not have relied on the opinions of employees to gauge whether policy changes had been effective.

The corrections agents overseeing the release program also overwhelmingly voiced unhappiness with their high workloads and low pay. As of July 2022, the program had more than 250 unfilled positions — nearly 13% of its total staffing. It’s a problem the corrections department has acknowledged across its workforce and asked lawmakers to fix by increasing wages for prison guards and other criminal justice workers.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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