Michels wants to halt all paroles in Wisconsin, citing release of violent offenders under Evers. Many of those were required by law (2022)

MADISON - Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels is attacking Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over the parole of state inmates convicted of violent crimes, with Michels calling on Evers to stop paroles altogether — a move that in some cases would violate state law.

Michels this week sent a letter to Evers demanding he suspend the prison releases after a conservative website Wisconsin Right Now published a series of stories on some of the offenders being paroled, including men who decapitated, strangled and stabbed women. In some of the cases, families weren't notified of the killers' releases, the website reported.

Evers appoints the chairperson to the state parole commission, but does not make parole decisions.

More: What to know about parole, truth in sentencing and when people can get out of prison in Wisconsin

The commission chairman has authority over parole and the commission is required by state law to regularly interview eligible inmates. In many cases paroles are mandatory under state law. Only inmates sentenced before 2000, when a law known as truth-in-sentencing took effect, are eligible for parole.

Evers could hinder the commission's work by withdrawing the appointment of chairman Christopher Blythe and not replacing him, but state law also requires the commission to regularly consider paroles.

State records show the commission has been granting discretionary paroles at a slightly higher rate since Evers took office than during the previous eight years when Republican Gov. Scott Walker was in office. The number of discretionary paroles being granted in recent years is far below commissions during previous administrations of both parties due in part to changes in sentencing laws.

More: The embattled chairman of the Wisconsin Parole Commission resigns at the request of Gov. Tony Evers

The issue of crime has become the centerpiece of Republican campaigns for statewide offices in Wisconsin, a battleground state where elections can be decided by a few thousand votes.

In the letter, Michels detailed cases of men who were recently released after serving sentences for committing brutal murders and accused Evers of not caring about "just how heinous their crimes were and just how upset the surviving victims and their families are that you set them free."

Evers said Wednesday that Michels "is obviously unprepared to be governor of the state of Wisconsin."

"Paroles have to happen by law," Evers said.

Britt Cudaback, spokeswoman for Evers, said in an earlier statement that Evers has no authority to suspend or end paroles and doing so would violate state laws and the U.S. Constitution.

"In Wisconsin, parole is required by state law," Cudaback said. "This is clearly an uninformed stunt to score political points by someone who has no regard or appreciation for the laws of our state."

Michels' spokeswoman Anna Kelly responded, "if Evers can't do anything about anything, why is he running for another failed term?"

Earlier this year, Evers asked Blythe's predecessor, John Tate, to resign after granting parole to Douglas Balsewicz, who in 1997 stabbed his wife to death in front of their children. The parole decision was rescinded weeks later under massive criticism after the victim's family was not notified before learning of Balsewicz's expected release.

More: Wisconsin Senate Republicans split over convening a session to fire Tony Evers' parole commissioner

More: 'We're better than this': An angry week in Wisconsin politics leaves Tony Evers, GOP lawmakers cemented in division

It prompted Evers to publicly criticize his appointee and ultimately ask for his resignation. He then replaced Tate with Blythe.

Since Evers took office in 2019, the commission has approved 461 discretionary parole grants — 51.5% of the total number, according to parole commission data. Between 2011 and 2018, when former Republican Gov. Scott Walker was in office, the commission granted 663 discretionary releases, or 47.5% of the total.

Of those who received a discretionary parole since Evers took office, 78 offenders — or 16% of the total paroled — have absconded, been accused of new crimes, or were sent back to prison, according to commission data. During Walker's administration, 81% of those who received discretionary parole reoffended or absconded.

The parole commission is required to take into consideration three factors when granting a discretionary parole: Depreciation of the seriousness of the offense resulting from early release; risk to the community; and reasonable certainty of a crime-free reintegration of the inmate into society.

In addition to discretionary paroles, the commission is required to parole felons who have completed either the Earned Release Program or the Challenge Incarceration Program, both of which allow inmates who committed certain offenses to be released early. Under the Challenge Incarceration Program, for instance, inmates must complete manual labor, military drill, physical exercise and treatment to qualify for parole.

Overall, the Evers administration has released 895 felons under discretionary and mandatory parole under the two programs, compared with 1,397 during Walker's two terms, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of Department of Corrections data. Of the total number of offenders paroled during Evers' tenure, 593 were convicted of offenses classified as violent, such as murder, rape and armed robbery. The number for Walker's time in office was 744 violent offenders.

Numbers higher in past administrations

The number of discretionary paroles granted under Evers and Walker are fewer than under previous administrations of both parties.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's parole commission granted more than 5,000 discretionary paroles. Doyle served eight years. Under Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, who served three years, that number was 2,500.

Currently in Wisconsin, a judge will specify how many years someone will spend in prison, known as initial confinement, and how many years a person will be monitored in the community, known as extended supervision.

This system is known as “truth in sentencing” and has been in effect in Wisconsin since 2000. The truth-in-sentencing law was approved in 1998 and had broad bipartisan support at the time.

It was introduced by Walker, then a state lawmaker, and signed by Gov. Tommy Thompson, both Republicans, but also had support from then-Attorney General Doyle before he became governor.

During the 14 years Thompson was in office, largely before the truth-in-sentencing law took effect, more than 23,000 discretionary paroles were granted.

The truth-in-sentencing law, among the toughest in the nation, requires all prisoners to serve every day of the sentence imposed by a judge.

From the archives: $1.8 billion: The price of truth in sentencing

Before truth in sentencing, a judge sentenced a person to prison and after a certain time period, he or she became eligible for parole. Then it was up to the parole commission to decide if the person should stay behind bars or go out into the community on supervision.

Only those who were sentenced under the old system, which means anyone convicted of a crime committed before Dec. 31, 1999, are eligible for parole.

About 8% of the state's 20,235 in-custody prisoners were sentenced under the parole system, according to Department of Corrections data.

The state reported that 1,784 people in custody had at least one parole-eligible offense at the end of August. The average age of those individuals is 52.4 years old.

Finger pointing around state funding to fight crime

Evers told reporters this month crime could improve if the state increased its payments to local municipalities so more law enforcement officials could be hired.

"The state has to do their job and it has not done their job," Evers said. "I've put the money in the budget for the two budgets I've had access to doing and surprise, the Republicans took it out of the budget. We need their help. At the end of the day, these things are about resources and the state is willing and has the money to do it. All we need is to get the resources behind it."

Michels said he's willing to increase state funding to local municipalities for police departments and believes Evers "coddles criminals," by giving them second chances.

More: Tony Evers spending $50 million in federal funds to boost police forces, clear court backlogs

More: $45 million in federal aid to be spent on violence prevention, crime victim services, Gov. Evers announces

Michels also has touted his endorsement from Thompson, who has repeatedly said that he regrets having built as many prisons as he did during his four terms.

We lock up too many people for too long. It’s about time we change the dynamics. I apologize for that,” Thompson, the state’s Republican governor from 1987 to 2001, said at the Marquette University Law School in 2018.

Asked if Michels agreed with Thompson, Kelly said, "Unlike Tony Evers, people actually felt safe when Tommy Thompson was governor."

Michels wouldn't say if he favors shutting down early release for prisoners, but he did say Evers is letting out too many criminals.

"The benchmark is Gov. Walker. Gov. Walker did zero early parole," Michels said, confusing pardons and paroles. "Gov. Evers is on his way to almost 1,000 today. What is the right number? It's certainly a whole lot less than Gov. Tony Evers. Is zero my number? I don't know, but it's certainly going to be a very low number."

Walker did not parole zero criminals. Rather, he did not grant a single pardon during eight years in office. A pardon clears a conviction from someone's criminal record. Parole allows criminals to leave prison before filling their full term and finish their sentence under supervision in the community.

The issue of crime also emerged during the 2018 race. Walker ran a television ad criticizing Evers' support for the idea of cutting the prison population in half, arguing it would result in the release of "felons who've committed rape, assault, robbery and even kidnapping."

Evers said the TV ad was "a lie."

"We will not release violent criminals," he said.

On pardons, Evers has taken the opposite approach of Walker since taking office, seeking to issue the most pardons in history. Michels also has asked Evers to halt pardons.

From the archives: Iraq War vet faces losing battle for pardon from Scott Walker

Told that Michels had confused parole with pardons in his comment, Kelly criticized Evers on both issues, saying Michels believes the Democratic governor and his administration were issuing too many pardons and granting too many paroles.

You can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here.

Ashley Luthern and Vanessa Swales of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Contact Molly Beck, Corrine Hess and Daniel Bice at molly.beck@jrn.com, chess@gannett.com and dbice@jrn.com.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Republican candidate Tim Michels wants to stop paroles in Wisconsin

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