In 2012, the US Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama 567 U.S 460 held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. While this decision assisted in reshaping juvenile justice, and offered retroactive relief (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 2016) its impact on Wisconsin is problematic, moot even.
Former Governor, Citizen Walker severely curtailed justice reform with the state’s ‘truth-in-sentencing’ initiative which all but nullified parole while extending sentences for thousands of offenders across Wisconsin. It can be proffered that Wisconsin, empowered with legislative discretion when handing down LWOP judgements, has, under the Walker era, inadvertently done exactly that.
As a state legislator Walker fabricated his career, ambitiously increasing incarceration rates while, replenishing private prisons in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Minnesota with Wisconsin offenders. At the time over $45 million of Wisconsin taxpayer money was siphoned into one organisation: The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). As one of the nation’s largest private prison operators, the CCA funded political contributions and lobbyists, including Walker. As state representative Walker mutated into Milwaukee county executive Walker, his penchant for privatisation continued. However, as political aspirations grew, 2010 found Walker disavowing his previous support for privatisation - though his ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws and the budget of 2011-2013 saw Walker repeal early-release mechanisms, such as the earned-release program and positive adjustment time.
Taking the oath of office on January 3rd, 2011, Walker disavowed himself of over 1,400 pardon applications. Dismissing a Governor’s executive and absolute power to provide relief, Walker’s special interest funded critique of the Wisconsin justice system would ultimately contribute to his political ruination.
Evers Proves Victorious on Criminal Justice Reform
There are currently 70 juvenile offenders serving life with the possibility of parole in Wisconsin, many serving long and punitive sentences. Among those juvenile lifers languishes the wrongfully convicted Brendan Dassey, or as the depersonalisation of WISDOJ would have Brendan known; DOC #516985. It is always about numbers for the Walker and Schimel administration. So much so, that Schimel in October 2017, with the Department of Corrections initiated a lifetime GPS tracking for a selection of offenders, even those no longer under supervision.
The Department of Corrections Secretary John Litscher did not act on this directive at the time, with Schimel waiting until the appointment of the new secretary Cathy Jess in October 2018 who did. 181 ex-offenders now pay $200 per month at a total of $434,400 a year to the Department of Corrections. This narrative in no way minimises the impact these offenders may have had on their victims or society, but rather, serves to highlight, the lengths former AG Brad Schimel in cohorts with Walker would go, to ensure darkened dollars buffer the DOC war chest.
“We have to start prioritizing people, not prisons”
The newly inaugurated Governor Evers announced Wisconsin’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Policy Advisory Council back in December of 2018. Collating a committee of law and reform stakeholders (including Dean Strang) the 30-strong council is already active with recommendations underway. The new Attorney General Josh Kaul also took the oath of office on January 7th, with little known of Kaul’s platform on criminal justice reform, Kaul stated “… I want to make clear that, irrespective of the action taken by the lame-duck Legislature, the priorities of the Wisconsin Department of Justice are changing." An implied promise of a new era… an implied promise that doesn’t figure among Judge Rovner's “death by a thousand cuts”.
Time will bear witness to whether Evers and his criminal justice reform advisory council redress and repeal truth-in-sentencing laws. Will the council acquaint themselves with an understanding of the juvenile brain to inform juvenile justice policy and practice? Will Josh Kaul join the ranks of AG’s pushing for bold progressive reform? Will he step through the looking glass of Schimel’s jobbery and emerge inquisitive to the point of co-operation?
The totality of Brendan Dassey, is so much more than his circumstance, embodying this erroneous injustice with grace. I remain optimistic that the newly flavoured Wisconsin governance will finally align itself with the arc of the moral universe, not simply bent but firmly wrenched towards justice.
Free Brendan Dassey.