Report: Wisconsin has one of the highest incarceration rates in US, especially for Black residents

Waupun Correctional Institution on Sept. 19, 2023.

As news of extended lockdowns, staffing shortages, deaths, overcrowding and infestations plague Wisconsin’s prison system, a report released Wednesday shows the state continues to have some of the highest incarceration rates and largest prison budgets in the nation.

The report, “Prison Blues: Corrections still a huge cost driver and policy challenge for Wisconsin,” was released the same day advocates and family members gathered outside of the Waupun Correctional Institution to protest the lengthy lockdown there.

Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr has referred to the circumstances in Waupun, Green Bay and other correctional institutions not as lockdowns but as a “state of modified movement,” brought on by staffing shortages and disruptive behavior.

Here’s what to know about the Wisconsin Policy Forum report:

Wisconsin’s overall incarceration rate exceeds national rates — but not for the reasons you’d think

Among neighboring states, Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration: for every 100,000 residents, 344 are incarcerated.

The second highest in the region, Michigan, has a rate of 321 incarcerated people per 100,000 residents.

It’s also higher than the national rate of 316 per 100,000 residents.

The top cause of incarceration in Wisconsin is not people committing new crimes, the report says. Instead, it’s revocations for rule violations for those on community supervision after being released from custody.

Those revocations accounted for about 30% of all new admissions in the state from 2000 until 2020, according to the report.

Revocations are strongly associated with substance abuse issues, according to the Badger Institute. Data from the Department of Corrections show that 72% of people on supervision were in need of substance abuse treatment in 2022.

“In the absence of more varied, extended and holistic community-based AODA (alcohol and other drugs) treatment options, it is predictable that this portion of the community supervision population will continue to face revocation at higher rates than their non-substance-abusing counterparts,” wrote University of Wisconsin Law School professor Cecelia Klingele.

Wisconsin keeps people on extended supervision longer than other states

Wisconsin has some of the most severe maximum terms for supervision in the country.

The federal government and many states limit probation to three to five years, while Wisconsin requires extended supervision to equal a quarter of time spent in prison.

More than 63,000 adults were on extended supervision in Wisconsin as of mid-August, nearly three times the state prison population.

Wisconsin had the third highest Black-white imprisonment disparity in the country

In 2021, Wisconsin had the third-highest Black-white imprisonment disparity in the nation based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The disparity is calculated by dividing the Black incarceration rate by the white incarceration rate.

Black Wisconsinites are imprisoned at just under 12 times the rate of white Wisconsinites. New Jersey and California had the highest disparities, at a little more than 12 times and 15 times respectively.

The report also found Wisconsin imprisoned more Black people than anywhere else in the country. For every 100,000 Black Wisconsinites, 2,104 end up incarcerated. Oklahoma has the second highest rate of Black people incarcerated, at 1,932 per 100,000 Black residents.

“Historical developments, socioeconomic factors, and policy choices made over many decades have contributed to these incarceration rates and racial disparities in Wisconsin,” the report notes.

Wisconsin spends more on corrections than most states

Wisconsin spends $220 per state resident to fund the prison system, more than most states.

The national average is $182, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

The 2023-25 Wisconsin budget earmarks $2.76 billion in general-purpose revenue to the Department of Corrections, making it the third-highest recipient among all state agencies, the report says.

But the high investment has not solved problems in the prison system. Wisconsin’s 37 correctional institutions and centers remain overcrowded and understaffed. Some facilities, such as Green Bay Correctional Institution, are in disrepair and have been recommended for closure.

Report recommends two steps to address high incarceration rates

The report cited best practices in substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as evaluating revocations differently as ways to reduce the state’s high incarceration rates.

More than 42% of incarcerated adult men have at least one mental health condition, according to the state Department of Corrections.

The American Psychological Association recommends diverting people with mental health conditions from correctional facilities.

The report also recommended policymakers increase funding for substance abuse treatment programs within the prisons and diversion programs for those convicted of nonviolent offenses linked to substance abuse.

Finally, it highlighted changes made by the Department of Corrections in 2021 that raised the threshold for revocation. For example, if a violation is related to substance use, all other treatment options must be exhausted before revocation.

Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.


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