Sept. 27, 2022 – The Badger Institute today released four new reports as part of a Mandate for Madison crime and public safety package. The reports examine:  

  • Technology and reforms that can improve public safety and produce cost savings for those under state supervision.

“For the people who need it most – Milwaukee residents, families and victims of violent crimes throughout the state, children in schools where politicians won’t allow police, and almost anyone awaiting a verdict – Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is failing,” said Mike Nichols, president of the Badger Institute. “These four reports, released as part of our Mandate for Madison, provide a comprehensive, statewide view of the debilitating problems and offer the first steps needed to solve them.”  

Below are summaries of and links to the reports: 

A Tale of Two States

Wisconsin Crime Trends: 2017-2022  

Many parts of Wisconsin are safe and have been getting safer, according to Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and author of this report. But Wisconsinites who live and work in our largest city, Milwaukee, suffer worsening depredations from criminals, particularly in homicide, auto theft and aggravated assault. For some specific offenses, especially auto theft and homicide, other cities in Wisconsin are seeing a worsening trend, sometimes dramatically worse. Arrests, meanwhile, are falling, meaning more offenders face little to no accountability.  

The greatest changes in 2020 and 2021 were in three categories: homicide, aggravated assault (which includes shootings) and auto theft. Homicides doubled in Milwaukee and increased 41% in the rest of Wisconsin. Aggravated assaults increased 26% in Milwaukee while remaining unchanged elsewhere in the state. Auto thefts rose 255% in Milwaukee and 46% in the rest of Wisconsin, with much of that increase was concentrated in the Milwaukee suburbs. 

Kennedy concludes that Wisconsin policymakers need to reinvigorate the Milwaukee Police Department, restore accountability to lawbreakers by reversing the declining trend in arrests, and prioritize full and accurate crime reporting.

Toward Swifter Justice: Overburdened Prosecutors and Public Defenders Linked to Wisconsin Court Backlogs

Wisconsin’s court system is plagued by massive delays and a growing backlog of criminal cases, according to a new analysis conducted by Jeremiah Mosteller, senior policy analyst for criminal justice at Americans for Prosperity. It now takes more than a year for a court to resolve an armed robbery charge, 14 months to resolve a sexual assault case and more than 15 months to resolve an allegation that someone committed a murder. Some defendants have been inappropriately released to commit more crimes. Others are being denied for too long the constitutional guarantees to a quality, state-funded defense meant to ensure that the innocent are not unjustly incarcerated.

Mosteller reports that Wisconsin district attorneys and public defenders are often underpaid relative to their counterparts in similar and neighboring states. The inability to recruit and retain adequate numbers of attorneys for both positions means DAs and public defenders are often stretched thin while both victims and the accused are denied swift access to the courts.

Among other things, Mosteller recommends that lawmakers improve the starting salary and rate of pay progression for assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders, monitor staffing and caseloads, and establish caseload standards for assistant public defenders that conform to national standards.

The Thinning Blue Line: Milwaukee Police Department’s Attrition Crisis 

In this report, researcher Sean Kennedy measures the results of reduced police protection for Milwaukee’s beleaguered citizens. He found that not only has the city reduced the number of authorized police positions, there are fewer officers to fill them, leading to higher vacancy rates. The Milwaukee Police Department is also facing a damaging loss of institutional knowledge and practical skills, which could worsen policing just when Milwaukee needs its force to perform at its peak. 

MPD’s ranks have been depleted over the past 25 years by 24.8%, or an actual reduction of 538 officers, between a peak in 1997 and 2022. The city’s population has fallen only 4% during that period. 

Kennedy suggests that policymakers increase MPD force levels, bolster the detective ranks so the department can solve more crimes, maintain and increase recruiting and performance standards as a means of improving police morale, and emulate cities that have succeeded in turning around negative crime and police morale trends.

Saving Money, Encouraging Work and Improving Safety Through More Rigorous Electronic Monitoring 

Most offenders in the Wisconsin corrections system will be released within two to five years. Others are given probation instead serving time behind bars. Almost all of these individuals will be supervised, and technology can offer alternatives that enhance public safety, save taxpayers’ money and allow more opportunities for individuals to join the workforce.  

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has the largest budget of any state agency — $2.68 billion for 2019-’21. Even with all of this spending, state prisons are over capacity, with more than 20,000 prisoners inhabiting facilities designed for 17,600. Making matters worse, many of these facilities are outdated and understaffed. One proposed solution — building a new 1,200-bed maximum security prison — likely would cost at least $500 million and still fall short of solving the overcrowding issues. 

Wisconsin policymakers should expand electronic monitoring in specific instances, adopt supervision lengths in line with those in other states and require better statewide data tracking and reporting.

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