How Wisconsin's parole system works and the political battle brewing over it

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Inmates convicted of violent crimes who were paroled by the state have become a central issue for Republicans this election cycle.

It's largely been a focus of Republican candidate Tim Michels' campaign in an effort to keep the governor's race focused on crime. Michels has been hammering his Democratic opponent Gov. Tony Evers and his administration for paroling inmates convicted of murder, rape and other brutal crimes which has been reported by the conservative outlet Wisconsin Right Now.

But why is this happening? Did previous administrations do the same? And how does the parole system work?

Who Makes the Decisions

The four-member Wisconsin Parole Commission, not the governor, decides whether a person should stay behind bars or be granted parole and be released back into the community on supervision. The chair of the commission oversees the board and makes the final decision whether someone is set free.

An individual is eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence, according to state laws.

The commission considers a variety of factors for paroles including eligibility, serving sufficient time for an offense, plans for housing and employment, and proof they've reduced their risk to the public among other criteria.

Adam Stevenson, UW-Madison Law Professor and Director of the Frank J. Remington Center, said it's a process that's been in place for years and the number of people eligible for parole is fairly small.

"It's a relatively small percentage of our prison population and it's estimated to be roughly 10 percent," Stevenson said.

Mandatory vs. Discretionary Paroles

There are two types of paroles. Ones that are mandatory under state law and those that are discretionary. A discretionary parole is a decision to release an inmate from an institution whose sentence has not expired. These types of paroles have been handed out routinely under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

How Evers Paroles Compares to Previous Administrations

State records obtained by CBS 58 show since taking office Evers has been issuing discretionary paroles at a slightly higher rate compared to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's eight years in office. Since 2019, the commission has approved 461 discretionary paroles, about 52 percent of the total paroles under the Evers administration.

During the Walker administration, 663 discretionary paroles were granted from 2011-2018, nearly 48 percent of the total number of paroles, according to commission data.

Seventy-eight inmates who received discretionary paroles since Evers took office reoffended or absconded, 16.92 percent of the total. Under Walker's administration, 81 percent committed new crimes or absconded after receiving a discretionary parole.

Overall, the Evers administration released 895 total paroles either discretionary or mandatory, according to data by the commission. Under Walker's eight years, 1,397 were granted under both programs.

This data is significantly lower from previous administrations in many ways because of the "truth in sentencing" law.

What is Truth in Sentencing?

Any person who committed a felony offense on or after Dec. 31, 1999 and is sentenced to at least one year in person is not eligible for parole. Therefore, the parole board has no control over setting free inmates who were sentenced after 2000.

The law is one of the toughest in the nation because it requires all offenders to serve their entire sentence set by a judge.

"Individuals can change, they can take treatments to address issues that perhaps lead to their offense and none of that is considered in the ‘truth in sentencing’ model because all of that happened after sentencing," said Stevenson.

A majority of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson's 14 years in office took place before truth in sentencing was enacted, which in large part is why his administration granted more than 23,000 discretionary paroles.

Under three years of Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, he issued more than 2,500. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was over 5,000 during his eight years in office.

How Paroles Became Political

Last month, Michels sent a letter to Evers demanding he halt "reckless" efforts by the parole commission in releasing violent offenders. It lists several names of individuals paroled by the commission after serving their sentence. Many of the crimes were brutal murders.

"You are either unaware or do not care just how heinous their crimes were and just how upset the surviving victims and their families are that you set them free," Michels wrote.

Evers argues he can't stop paroles because the commission is required by law to consider paroles, and some are mandated.

"I appoint the chair, the commission makes the decisions," Evers said. "So frankly, that's a lie on their part if they want to continue saying that."

However, Evers could remove the chairman and not appoint a new one. When asked if he'd consider that, Evers said that wouldn't be enough to crackdown on crime.

"At the end of the day that alone is not going to change what happens in the streets far too often," said Evers during a campaign event in Milwaukee. "We need to provide more resources to our municipalities and counties so they can ramp up their prevention efforts."

Earlier this year, Evers did ask his former parole chairman John Tate to resign after he granted parole to Douglas Balsewicz, a West Allis man who in 1997 was convicted of murdering his wife in front of their children and served less than 25 years of an 80-year sentence.

Tate rescinded Balsewicz's parole on Evers' request after a flurry of controversial headlines which Republicans used as political ammo in the midst of a heated election year.

During an appearance at the Rotary Club in Milwaukee earlier this month, Evers addressed the issue of releasing violent offenders. Evers said he'd be open to reforming the parole commission to ensure victims and their families are more involved in the parole process.

"What I do think can happen is that we can change some laws as it relates to the victims of the crime," said Evers. "Making sure that they have adequate ways to interact with the parole commission."

List of 2022 Parolees

State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), a former police officer, accused the parole commission of stonewalling his request to release a list of 2022 parolees. After being threatened with possible legal action, the commission released parole records from January to May 2022.

CBS 58 reviewed a copy of that parole list and found:

-20 people convicted of first-degree murder or intentional homicide were granted a discretionary parole

-11 convicted of reckless homicide received a discretionary parole

-12 convicted of sexual assault, five of those involving children were granted discretionary parole

Tackling Rising Crime

Tackling rising crime is a priority Evers and Michels share, but how each portrays one another on the issue couldn't be more different on the campaign trail.

"[Evers] has released convicted felons on early parole. Some are convicted murders, some of them are cop killers and rapists," Michels said during a September campaign event. "They're on the streets of Wisconsin today. That is a great indicator of what Tony Evers thinks about felons. He wants to coddle the criminals."

Evers has countered attacks by touting more than $100 million investments in safety and violence prevention efforts.

Michels has said he's willing to give local governments more state funding to fight rising crime and bolster police departments, a revenue boost top Republicans have opposed.

But how the problem is addressed will largely be determined by who wins on Nov. 8 and how they can work with the GOP-controlled legislature.

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