By Dylan Deprey
At 19 years old, Mark Rice was looking at 100 years in a Wisconsin state prison.
He was charged with two counts of armed burglary and three counts of possession of firearms and ended up spending two years in prison.
In the last 16 years, Rice has turned his life around. He achieved two masters’ degrees and is a PHD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In 1999, Wisconsin did not have a mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
If it did, Rice would never have attained these educational accomplishments.
Rice is the Chair of WISDOM Post-Release Issues Workgroup.
WISDOM is a network of faith-based organizations working to aid those harmed by mass incarceration in Wisconsin.
“When I was in prison, I witnessed the racial injustice of the Wisconsin penal system,” Rice said.
The majority of the men he served his time with were African American and Latino men.
Most were serving extended sentences for nonviolent crimes.
“The federal system is arguably even more unjust compared to the Wisconsin system,” Rice said.
Rice as well as Scott Simpson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C. has urged Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Jonson to join other senators in passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.
The Sentencing Reform And Corrections Act of 2015 is a bill that targets federal prisons.
It reduces certain mandatory minimum sentences including nonviolent drug offenses.
The bill would also make the Fairness Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.
This law lowered the five and ten-year minimum of crack cocaine to powder cocaine.
It changed from 100 grams of powder cocaine being equivalent to one gram of crack cocaine to 18 grams of powder cocaine being equivalent to one gram of crack cocaine.
This law would also allow current prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent offenses to earn early release through rehabilitation programs.
“This is an important first step in reforming our unjust federal punishment system,” Rice said.
He attributes his postprison success to the fact that the judge did not have to give him a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence.
According to Simpson, in a recent poll of Wisconsin voters by the Tarrance Group, 70 percent of voters feel the government is using too many tax dollars imprisoning nonviolent offenders.
“This is one of the issues where both (political) parties agree that reform is needed and the people of Wisconsin want reform,” Simpson said.
If this reform did pass on the federal level, Rice believes it could make its way into the hands of Wisconsin state legislature.
Rice and WISDOM had met with Senator Tammy Baldwin in Washington, D.C. back in December.
She noted that she was waiting for a republican colleague to also back up the reform before she went public with it.
According to Simpson, this is the normal approach with a bipartisan bill.
Rice had also met with Senator Johnson’s staff.
They believed he would eventually support this reform like other justice system reforms including the Fair Chance Act.
“Were going to keep the pressure on,” Rice said.
“We are going to make sure he does take a leadership goal on this.”