Prison Blues

Corrections still a huge cost driver and policy challenge for Wisconsin

October 2023


National media coverage of the conditions in some Wisconsin prisons and a recently adopted state budget that appropriates $2.76 billion to corrections suggest the need for renewed focus by Wisconsin policymakers on prison populations, policies, and spending. In this report, we find Wisconsin continues to spend more than neighboring states and the national average in this area and its prison population has far greater disparities across race. Though solutions are challenging, policymakers still have much to do in this area.

A New York Times article in late August painted an alarming picture of the conditions at two of Wisconsin’s maximum security prisons. The newspaper’s investigative report – published in partnership with Wisconsin Watch and the Data-Driven Reporting Project – detailed an extended lockdown at the Waupun Correctional Institution in which prisoners had “been confined mostly to their cells for more than four months.” For their part, state officials said that Waupun had been not in lockdown but in a “state of modified movement” for reasons of staffing and safety.

The Times article also cited a lengthy lockdown at the state prison in Green Bay and “dire staffing shortages” as a primary cause for the harsh restrictions at both institutions, which are among the 37 state correctional institutions in Wisconsin. News reports have raised similar issues about other state prisons.

In our own research, the Forum has also noted the recent high turnover and vacancy rates in state Department of Corrections (DOC) prisons and other large state institutions. In the wake of these findings – as well as a recently passed state budget that continues to devote sizable shares of the state’s general purpose revenue (GPR) to corrections – this report takes a fresh look at incarceration trends in Wisconsin.

In recent years, several state and national studies have pointed to Wisconsin’s disconcerting status as an outlier when it comes to its corrections population, policies, and spending. Our latest look finds that Wisconsin’s Black imprisonment rate, while declining, has been the highest in the country in each of the last three years in which data are available (2019 to 2021). We also find that Wisconsin’s overall incarceration rate, while near the U.S. average, is the highest amongst its neighboring states. The state also spends more per capita on prisons than any of its neighbors.

Historical developments, socioeconomic factors, and policy choices made over many decades have contributed to these incarceration rates and racial disparities in Wisconsin. Another substantial driver – discussed in published reports by the Forum and other national and Wisconsin think tanks – is the state’s frequent practice of revoking offenders’ supervised release and returning them to prison for rule violations, and not the commission of new crimes.

In recent years, there seemed to be growing support for efforts to reduce corrections populations from across the political spectrum. Though that momentum may have abated somewhat, Gov. Tony Evers’ administration did implement major revisions to revocation policies at the beginning of 2021 and we can now at least begin to evaluate the results. Given the consequences of corrections policy for Wisconsin’s state budget and public safety, the reports of dire conditions in some state prisons, and the need to address one of the state’s most glaring examples of racial inequity, a high level of attention to these issues appears well warranted.

Wisconsin Stands out

The Black-white imprisonment disparity is the difference in rates between Black imprisonment rates and white imprisonment rates (that is, the Black imprisonment rate in a state divided by the white imprisonment rate). We calculated these rates using data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2021, Wisconsin had the third-highest Black-white imprisonment disparity in the country, as Black Wisconsinites were imprisoned at rates just under 12 times that of white Wisconsinites. Only New Jersey (12.83) and California (15.60) had larger gaps.

In the same year, Wisconsin’s black imprisonment rate of 2,104 per 100,000 residents was the highest in the country, and nearly 200 residents per 100,000 larger than the next highest state (Oklahoma, 1,932).

Within the United States, Wisconsin is only slightly above the national average for overall incarceration rates. As Figure 1 shows, in 2021, the state incarcerated 344 people per 100,000 of its population compared to 316 per 100,000 nationally. Wisconsin also had the highest rate of its neighbors, exceeding that of Michigan (321), Iowa (268), Illinois (225), and Minnesota (140).

Wisconsin also budgets more on corrections than most states including its neighbors, spending $220 for each state resident in 2020 compared to the U.S. average of $182, per the National Institute of Corrections. As Figure 2 shows, Michigan ($204), Iowa ($143), Minnesota ($111), and Illinois ($93) all spent less on a per capita basis. Meanwhile, in 2017 – the most recent year for which full U.S. Census data are available for all local governments – Wisconsin ranked 13th among states in per capita combined state and local corrections spending.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the 2023-25 state budget dedicates $2.76 billion in GPR to the Department of Corrections, making it the third-highest recipient of GPR among all state agencies. As shown in Figure 3, the share of the state’s GPR spending devoted to corrections has more than doubled over the past several decades, rising from 3.1% in 1990 to 7.3% in 2022. Though that share has come down somewhat from its peak of 8.8% in 2009, it has not changed much since 2015.

The DOC operates 37 correctional institutions and centers throughout Wisconsin, which include minimum, medium, and maximum security levels. At present, these institutions’ populations exceed design capacity by 24%, according to an August 2023 DOC report. This is not new – state prisons have been operating over capacity for years. Some prisons are also quite old – parts of Green Bay Correctional Institution in Allouez were built in the 19th century and parts of Waupun Correctional Institution were built before the Civil War.

Prison Population Dropped during Pandemic

A major, if perhaps temporary shift in the overall corrections system occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. After rising rapidly in the 1980s and especially 1990s, and then holding roughly steady, the average adult population in state prisons fell from 23,956 at the end of 2019 to 20,202 at the end of 2021 and an estimated 20,768 at end of 2022 (see Figure 4). By May 2021, the prison population fell to its lowest monthly level since late 1999. It has since been rising, but has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Corrections staff at the time said that a fall in admissions – rather than an increase in early releases – drove the decrease in inmates and they suggested three reasons for the drop-off. First, admissions to prisons from newly sentenced inmates fell for a time because court trials slowed due to the pandemic. Second, for a time, the prison population was about 1,000 inmates lower than typical because there was a backlog for moving male prisoners from county jails into state prisons. The backlog stretched back to the spring of 2020 when the state temporarily stopped admissions because of COVID-19. Third, DOC made changes that resulted in fewer inmates on extended supervision being revoked and returning to prison.

However, even with this substantial drop in the population, Wisconsin’s adult corrections institutions were still operating above the designed capacity of around 17,500. Furthermore, DOC records show the weekly prison population has subsequently increased to 21,498 as of mid-August 2023.

Revocations a key driver of prison population

A significant driver of Wisconsin’s comparatively high incarceration rates and the racial disparities in its corrections population is the state’s community corrections system, which is responsible for oversight of offenders who have been released from prison but have not yet completed their extended supervision. In fact, revocation for rule violations — and not the commission of new crimes — was the top cause of incarceration in Wisconsin from 2000 until 2020, accounting for more than 30% of all new admissions each year until last year (see Figure 5). Further, according to a DOC weekly population report from mid-August, the total number of adults under supervision in the community (63,129) is roughly three times greater than the number of adults in state prisons (21,498).

A 2019 Columbia University Justice Lab study noted that people who had previously been under community supervision made up approximately half of the total adult population incarcerated in Wisconsin state prisons. People incarcerated for technical revocations revocations for violating supervision rules, and not committing a new crime – made up over one-fifth of the state prison population at that time.

A 2019 Badger Institute report by UW-Madison Law School professor Cecilia Klingele found that revocations are very strongly associated with substance abuse issues that either formed the basis for the revocation or contributed to it indirectly. Updated data from DOC show that 72% of people on supervision in Wisconsin had a substantial need for substance abuse treatment in 2022.

Another factor to consider is Wisconsin’s exceptionally long maximum terms of supervision. In 2016, Wisconsin had the third-longest supervision times in the country, according to the Columbia University report. The federal government and many states cap probation at three to five years. Wisconsin, on the other hand, requires extended supervision for at least a quarter of the time spent in initial confinement, which means it could in theory last as long as 20 years for a Class B felony, for example. Class B felonies are the most serious non-lifetime charge in Wisconsin and include second-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, kidnapping, and first-degree sexual assault. In Klingele’s study, the vast majority of revocations – 90% – occurred within the first two years of supervision.

Revisiting behavioral health and revocation policies

Two steps Wisconsin leaders could consider to address high incarceration rates and racial disparities are expanding behavioral health treatment programming and enacting changes to the community corrections system. Those strategies could result in savings to the corrections system overall through reduced revocations and incarceration.

With regard to the former, 42% of incarcerated adult males in adult institutions in Wisconsin in 2023 have a mental health condition, according to DOC. A 2019 American Psychological Association report on improving inmate mental health emphasized diverting people with mental health problems from correctional facilities, reducing the number of people placed in isolation, introducing trauma-informed care, emphasizing alternatives to hospitalization for people facing a mental health or substance abuse crisis, and identifying suicide patterns. Additionally, the Council of State Governments’ guide to research-informed policy and practice discusses ways to improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses under community supervision and outlines further areas of research.

Substance abuse treatment for offenders could also help to reduce recidivism. Policymakers may wish to consider increasing funding for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) Program that is already operating in Wisconsin as well as the Substance Abuse Primary Treatment Program. Policymakers may also want to consider expanding the scope of these programs.

TAD currently diverts or treats people whose substance abuse is linked with their criminal offense, and the programs are currently limited to serving people convicted of nonviolent offenses. Treatment for violent persons who are deemed not appropriate for diversion currently happens through separate treatment programs within DOC institutions, such as the Substance Abuse Primary Treatment Program. Increasing funding for primary treatment programs could allow more offenders to receive substance abuse treatment and ensure that waiting lists are not preventing inmates from receiving help or from completing the steps necessary for them to be released from prison.

The other main area in which stakeholders could – and are – considering policy changes is community corrections. In 2019, DOC sought to reshape its revocation policies through what it called the “Evidence-Based Response to Violations Project” (EBRV). The agency modified a number of policies starting in January 2021 that raised the threshold for revocation in a number of different circumstances, effectively making it a less common occurrence.

At a basic level, revocation in Wisconsin today is determined both by the severity of the initial violation and an individual’s risk of being arrested for a new criminal offense within two years. If the individual is deemed to be low risk and the violation was minor, the chances for revocation are low, and vice versa. In one of the notable changes among the many others, the new framework says that in the cases of individuals with violations that only involve drugs or alcohol, all other treatment options must be exhausted before revocation becomes a possibility.

These changes immediately reduced revocations. DOC staff revoked 6,759 individuals across the state in 2022, or about 4,500 fewer than the 11,379 revoked in 2018, a 40.6% decline. Far fewer individuals were therefore sentenced to state prison or local jail on a revocation last year; the effect of these changes seems to be what has caused revocation-only admissions to state prison to drop to just 29.5% of overall admissions in 2022, the lowest of any year since at least 2000 (see Figure 5).

On the other hand, a recent audit by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau of the state’s community corrections program found that the drop in revocations due to the new approach has brought additional concerns. The Audit Bureau surveyed hundreds of DOC agents about the January 2021 policy changes, and found that as opposed to 74.5% of agents that said community correction violation consequences were appropriate before the policy changes, just 22.0% said the same afterward. A majority of agents disagreed with the following statements: “policies appropriately categorize violation levels;” “responses appropriately consider public safety;” and “responses reduce the likelihood of future violations.” A majority of officers also expressed dissatisfaction with new revocation policies and the removal of a “very high” risk level in the matrix. Further, the audit found that DOC did not complete required risk assessments of inmates or investigations quickly enough.

Over this period, total authorized full-time equivalent (FTE) positions within the community corrections program increased by 4.1% from July 2019 (1,890.6) to July 2022 (1,968.6). Yet over the same period, the number of those positions that were filled dropped from 1,785.1 to 1,716.9. The community corrections vacancy rate stood at 12.8% as of July 2022, including more than a third of positions within the state electronic monitoring center that monitors offenders who wear or use global positioning system (GPS) devices, radio devices to monitor curfew, and devices that collect information on alcohol intake.

Despite the substantial changes to revocation protocols, particularly around substance abuse, the investments in treatment options appear more modest. In addition to a $4.7 million expansion included in the 2023-25 state budget, DOC’s Division of Adult Institutions was recently awarded a federal grant to assist in funding Medication Assisted Treatment. The department has also increased access to Naloxone and Vivitrol for individuals with substance use disorders prior to release. However, DOC officials note that no substantial changes have taken place within the Division of Community Corrections or the Reentry Unit. Evers has proposed additional treatment funding and programming in his budget proposals, but lawmakers have not included those measures.

For the reasons outlined above, the current administration’s new approach and other revocation policies should continue to be monitored by state officials within DOC as well as by elected officials. The Audit Bureau further found DOC did not adequately review its imposed penalties for people who violated their supervision terms to see which consequences were most effective at preventing another offense. In response to the audit, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr testified to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee that the agency is working to implement most of the audit’s recommendations. Policymakers may wish to expand efforts to collect better data on current and future programming and outcomes to ensure corrections policy reflects the best possible evidence.

Other policy considerations

Policymakers also could consider reviewing sentencing processes as a means of reducing corrections populations and addressing racial inequities. Notably, Congress and then President Donald Trump approved legislation to overhaul minimum federal sentence requirements and permit the early release of prisoners in certain cases. The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a new rule that implements the federal time credits program, which was established by the First Step Act. Those eligible who have earned time credits by participating in approved programs like Evidence-Based Recidivism Reducing Programs may have them applied toward pre-release custody or early transfer to supervised release. Some other states like North Carolina have followed suit.

Ultimately, the foundation of effective reforms and a strong system overall is solid data and keen insights into how well existing approaches are working. In many cases, however, there can be considerable challenges to arriving at these conclusions.

For example, the type of offender who volunteers for some interventions such as drug treatment may be different in material ways from those offenders who do not seek or sign up for such treatment, making it difficult to extrapolate results from those currently participating in a program to those not yet involved in it. Yet for legal and ethical reasons, policymakers may be reluctant or unable to randomly provide treatment or other programming to some individuals while withholding it for others.

Another major challenge the system has faced historically is a general need for support for those being released, who face a variety of challenges such as finding housing and employment. That said, DOC is paying acute attention to this population, and in fiscal year 2022 devoted $13.5 million to recidivism reduction. Just under 30% of this total was spent on the “Opening Avenues to Reentry Success” (OARS) program, whose population includes recently released individuals either with high mental health needs, high or moderate risks to reoffend, or both. Individuals who are part of OARS are provided with wraparound services starting six to eight months prior to release and for two years afterward, and social workers are deployed to help with everything from ensuring medication is taken to helping clients make responsible decisions and eventually getting clients to live and work on their own.

Other services offered by DOC in the area of recidivism reduction include assistance in enrolling in Medicaid, legal services, residential programs, and employment. DOC research has found that OARS has a statistically-significant impact on lowering re-incarceration rates in each of the first three years post-release; it has found similarly effective results in its “Windows to Work” program in employment rates relative to a control group in the first three post-release years.

Private and non-profit alternatives meant to aid newly-released individuals are also present. Wisconsin-based examples include: the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, Benedict Center, Center for Self Sufficiency, Clean Slate Milwaukee, Employ Milwaukee, EX-incarcerated People Organizing, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, Project RETURN, Table of the Saints, and Wisconsin Community Services. Some of the offerings of these groups include legal services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, job readiness and matching, expungement assistance, housing, and increasing civic engagement.

Policymakers may want to consider assessing the effectiveness of both public and private efforts to reduce recidivism. Should models like OARS continue to show meaningful outcomes, the Legislature could consider boosting funding to ensure these targeted efforts reach more individuals.


While Wisconsin’s incarceration challenges are daunting, some progress is being made. Whereas in 2019, the state’s incarceration rate was 411 per 100,000, it dropped to 344 per 100,000 in 2021. This decline reflects the COVID-19 pandemic and some of it may prove to be temporary, but it is worth acknowledging.

However, despite the decline, Wisconsin still has the highest black incarceration rate in the country by a wide margin. Additionally, the designed capacity for the state’s adult institutions sits at around 17,500, while the total number of incarcerated individuals remains far above that level. This has had clear impacts in recent years, most notably seen at Waupun. Overcoming these challenges will not be easy and could require additional programs and spending, at least in the short term. Staying on the current path of relatively high incarceration rates, however, will likely mean substantial corrections spending for Wisconsin over the long term.

This brief cites the benefit to focusing on behavioral health treatment programming and community corrections – some of which the state is already pursuing – but there are a multitude of other possible solutions that could be considered that we do not mention here. These include requiring racial impact statements for legislation that would increase criminal penalties, decriminalizing low level drug offenses, and increasing the age of trying juveniles as adults. Additionally, while updated revocation policies seem to have lessened penalties on those in the community corrections system when it comes to substance abuse, it does not appear that there have been corresponding levels of investment in treatment for these offenders. While funding increases for OARS have been passed as part of two of the last three state budgets, other proposals from Evers – including expanding the number of Alternative to Revocation beds available and others mentioned earlier – have been removed by the Legislature. That may represent a risk to the long-term success of this new approach.

The state has the resources at the moment to consider investments that over the long term could lower corrections costs while maintaining or improving the safety of the public. As the Forum recently noted, the 2023-25 budget is projected to leave the state with a general fund balance of more than $4 billion at the end of June 2025, and the same budget raised starting pay for correctional officers from $20.29 an hour to $33 an hour, which should help to alleviate the challenges from vacant prison positions. Though Evers and Wisconsin lawmakers have also talked about using these funds to cut taxes and fund child care, higher education, and upgrades to American Family Field, this surplus still presents an opportunity to put targeted resources into improving the criminal justice system.

The state’s crowded and in some cases aging prison facilities mean that state officials must already consider additional corrections spending to replace some of them in the years to come. Policymakers may be able to at least hold down these substantial pressures in the future by redoubling their efforts now to address the state’s high incarceration rates and racial disparities without sacrificing public safety.