Wisconsin probation program struggles to monitor, rehabilitate offenders, audit finds
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 Friday.
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.
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.
In a news release Friday, 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 last year, and Evers and Republicans have disagreed on how to address crime rates and problems in prisons.
Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, did not immediately respond Friday 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 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 faces across its workforce as lawmakers consider whether to increase wages for prison guards and other criminal justice workers.