More than half of inmates in Wisconsin’s prisons are not there because of a crime they committed. Instead, they are there solely because of technical probation violations, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation.
The sorts of violations that send individuals back to jail include minor rule infractions like prohibited cell phone use, leaving the county, or tattooing an under-age teen, according to the investigation.
And sending individuals back to jail for these violations requires far less proof than convicting someone of a crime. In the case of Hector Cubaro, for example, he was sent back to prison for tattooing a peace message on a 15-year-old, even though he said the teen lied about his age. Among the primary evidence used to send him to prison was hearsay testimony from a police officer who said he overheard a teen talking about the tattoo. But the rules of evidence don’t apply in the administrative parole violation hearings, and the standard of proof is far lower.
What’s more, the parole violation punishments are dramatically disproportionate to those the offense would carry in other circumstances. As the Journal Sentinel explained, the crime of tattooing a minor carries a $200 fine and a ticket. But because it was a parole violation, Cubaro faces at least 2 years in jail.
The system of parole developed to monitor inmates who might be at risk for criminal activity after their release. Officers are supposed to assess several factors including whether prison is necessary to protect the public. But the Journal Sentinel found scant evidence that officials were considering these factors before sending them back to jail. Instead, they seemed to basing sentences solely on the fact that there was a violation.
These findings point to another source of the United States’ bloated prison population, which remains far higher than any other developed country in the world, and with a vastly greater percentage of African Americans and Hispanics behind bars.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where parole violations account for a heavy proportion of the prison population. In North Carolina, more than half of prison inmates were also admitted for parole violations, most without having committed any new crime. Among the violations included missed appointments and failed drug tests.
But that state passed new legislation in 2011 to refocus efforts on rehabilitation, and impose shorter 90-day jail stints on those who need stiffer punishment, rather than long returns to prison. The result has been prison population declines of more than 20 percent in the first three years.