Capitol Report – Trying to Make Sense of Parole Eligibility

By State Representative, Leon D. Young

Leon D. Young

Leon D. Young

In recent weeks, my office has been receiving a steady stream of correspondence from prison inmates in various state institutions all complaining about the same thing.

The thorny issue in question: parole eligibility from state incarceration. Here’s the problem in the nutshell.

By way of history, in 1997, Wisconsin Act 283 enacted “truth-in-sentencing,” which increased the penalties for all felonies by 50%, or one year, whichever was greater.

Under Wisconsin’s Truth-in-Sentencing laws, any person who commits a felony offense on or after December 31, 1999, and is sentenced to at least one year in prison will not be eligible for parole.

Moreover, they are generally required to serve the entire sentence imposed by the Court, with some exceptions for early release.

Offenders who violate prison rules may have additional days added to the confinement portion of their sentence.

Upon completion of the confinement portion of their sentence, an offender must serve a period of Extended Supervision in the community under the supervision of a DOC community corrections agent.

At the time of sentencing, a judge determines the length of confinement and the length of Extended Supervision an offender must serve.

By law, the length of Extended Supervision must be at least one-quarter of the time of confinement.

The Parole Commission conducts regularly scheduled interviews with eligible inmates at the correctional institutions. [s. 304.01 (2), Stats.]

The only offenders who are eligible for parole are those who committed crimes prior to December 31, 1999.

These sentences are referred to as indeterminate sentences because the total amount of time that an offender will serve in prison is not known at the time the sentence is imposed.

Offenders who are sentenced under this indeterminate sentencing system (based on the date their crimes were committed) become eligible for discretionary parole after serving 25% of the court-imposed sentence, or six months, whichever is greater. [s. 304.06 (1) (b), Stats.] As noted, an offender may generally be considered for parole by the Parole Commission after serving at least 25% of his or her sentence.

However, the fact that an offender is eligible for consideration does not mean he or she will be paroled.

The Parole Commission looks at a number of factors when determining whether to grant parole to a particular offender. These factors include items such as progress in treatment and a viable plan for returning to the community.

Succinctly stated: Parole consideration is an entitlement, however, parole is not.

Each case is measured on an individual basis and parole consideration is based on the following criteria:

• Reached the Parole Eligibility Date in his or her sentence.
• Served sufficient time for punishment of his or her crime(s).
• Shown positive changes in behavior as well as documented progress in programming, treatment and/or educational achievement.
• A viable parole plan which offers the offender realistic opportunities for a stable residence, employment, and programming, if needed.
• An acceptably reduced level of risk to the public.

The criteria for determining risk include past criminal and incarceration record, probation and parole violations, security classification, and any unmet treatment or programs needs. Also considered is information contained in the institution case file, the actual interview, and correspondence received both for and against release on discretionary parole. Offenders are also generally required to be released on parole after serving 2/3 of the imposed sentence, referred to as the offender’s mandatory release date (“MR Date”). [s. 302.11 (1), Stats.] Though offenders are generally required to be released after their MR date, there are instances in which offenders are held for longer periods.

This may be due to misconduct while in prison or the fact that the offender committed certain types of serious felonies.

Additionally, there are different rules for offenders serving life sentences. A person serving a life sentence does not have an MR Date.

These offenders typically become eligible for parole after serving 20 years. [s. 304.06 (1) (b), Stats.] However, the court that sentenced the offender may impose a later parole eligibility date or may declare the person ineligible for parole.

This, in theory, is how parole is supposed to work, but reality is a far different thing.

Countless inmates are getting the proverbial runaround.

They appear before the Parole Commission time after time, only to be denied parole in the end.

When does this inmate repay his debt to society?

When will he be afforded the opportunity to move on with his life by being reintegrated back into the community?

For far too many Wisconsin inmates, with parole eligibility, they languish in prison indefinitely, with no real chance for a second life.

This approach to incarceration seems punitive, rather than rehabilitative.