Wisconsin got it all wrong. It's time to admit our expensive mistakes.
For years we've been spending money on the fallacy that if we lock up more people it will somehow make our state safer. So we implemented "truth in sentencing," built new prisons, expanded other prisons. And we spent and spent.
From 1990 to 2012, corrections spending in Wisconsin increased 620 percent - from $179 million to $2.25 billion. The number of prisoners grew from 7,000 to about 22,000 today. We built the prisons and had to pay to staff them.
Last year we hit a milestone that should leave Wisconsinites ashamed of our priorities: We spent more on prisons - $2.25 billion - than we did on the University of Wisconsin System at $2.1 billion.
We decided it was more important to spend money on locking people up - and watch half of them return to prison because of recidivism - than to help support the backbone of our economic future that turns out educated citizens needed in the job force.
But there's still hope that we haven't crossed the Rubicon. A new report from two groups suggests that if the state would increase spending for diversion programs, it would keep 3,100 people out of prison, reduce jail admissions by 21,000, reduce repeat crimes and keep about 1,500 parents with their families who pay a price that we don't even measure.
WISDOM, a group that includes 145 congregations from 19 faiths in Wisconsin (including the local group AMOS), and Human Impact Partners, which studies the effects of public policies on communities, suggest that we spend $75 million annually on treatment programs and an additional $20 million on other support services. They said the $95 million is less than half of what it would cost to house the nonviolent offenders in prison.
No one suggests putting violent offenders through such programs. Public safety is and must be paramount when considering treatment programs.
We're encouraged that legislative leaders from both parties are receptive to considering the recommendations.
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, is chairman of the Assembly Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. He told the Wisconsin State Journal that money invested in treatment programs has a greater return and reduces justice system costs.
"The report may be a catalyst to a discussion on how Wisconsin invests money in our criminal justice system," Bies said.
He's right. But let's quickly move from discussion to action. We must stop throwing away money we desperately need elsewhere by repeating what we know will fail and somehow expecting different results.