By The Associated Press

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. August 14, 2023.

Editorial: Inmate release raises important issues

Last week’s discussions in Eau Claire about parole transparency were important. While a newer state law has changed the rules regarding how and when people convicted of serious crimes may be released, some older cases remain outside of that framework.

There are two things that strike us about that. The first is how this illustrates a key protection people in the United States enjoy with regard to how laws change over time. The Constitution bars passage and application of ex post facto laws. In other words, the law applies as it is written at the time of an offense, not how it is at a later date.

The protection is in Article I. The purpose is to both protect people from changes and prevent absurdity in convictions. Take prohibition, for instance. Those who manufactured alcohol during prohibition, outside of a small handful of closely controlled circumstances, could be charged and convicted for doing so. Without a prohibition on retroactive application of laws those who manufactured alcohol prior to prohibition could, theoretically, have been similarly charged. The nation’s laws changed, and did so within the prescribed means of doing so. But the ban on ex post facto laws meant people couldn’t be prosecuted for doing something that, at the time of the act, was entirely legal.

That’s an important issue for justice. It would be patently unfair to have every single person living with the possibility that unforeseeable changes in the future might deprive them of their liberty. Even when we don’t like the outcome, it is critical that this principle be respected.

The other issue is arguably bigger, both for individuals and for society as a whole. The reality is that the vast majority of people in prison or in jail will eventually be released. Federal statistics from the United States Sentencing Commission tell the story.

Between 2016 and 2021, a total of 709 people convicted of federal offenses were sentenced to life in prison, about half of them for murder. That’s equivalent to 0.2% of the total inmate population at the federal level.

Another 799 people received what are, functionally, life sentences. Those are cases for someone who is, say 30 years old and receives a 90-year sentence. It’s not life, technically. But the odds of a person living to 120 and being released at that point are so vanishingly small that it’s not a practical consideration.

State figures are a little less certain, since Wisconsin puts that data in as a percentage of inmates at state prisons. The figures vary considerably. It probably surprises no one that maximum security facilities have higher percentages of inmates serving life sentences — it’s 14% of the population in Columbia Correctional Institution, but only 1% at the Robert Ellsworth Correctional Center. But, since both of those figures is higher than what the federal government reports, it’s reasonable to conclude state facilities have a higher percentage of people serving life sentences overall.

Even with that in mind, though, it’s well worth noting that more than eight out of every 10 inmates at Wisconsin’s most secure prisons are eventually expected to walk out the gates and back into society. It is in Wisconsin’s best interests to do the best we can to reintegrate people successfully. Some hurdles are unavoidable. Simply going from a highly-regimented life to one with far fewer rules is one. But others can be addressed.

It’s entirely appropriate that Wisconsin take steps to notify victims and their families when inmates are getting out, especially in cases where there may be reason to take precautionary actions. That’s basic protection for the public.

Remember, though, that the vast majority of people will eventually leave custody. That’s how the system is supposed to work, too.


Wisconsin State Journal. August 14, 2023.

Editorial: Legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin will bring in millions, increase freedom, recognize reality

Thirty-six million dollars could pay for 450 teachers in Wisconsin.

It could fix more than 700,000 potholes.

Or it could help 12,000 struggling families stay in their apartments or homes, avoiding eviction.

And that’s just the potential impact of the $36 million in tax revenue Wisconsin could collect every year from its residents now buying cannabis in Illinois. If marijuana were legalized here — as it has been in some form in every state surrounding Wisconsin — the tax collections would easily top $100 million, according to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Minnesota, for example, which legalized recreational marijuana Aug. 1, expects to receive $110 million in annual tax revenue by 2027. That’s enough money to employ and train some 5,000 young people in the Wisconsin Conservation Corps, building trails, managing wildlife habitats and completing carpentry projects.

More important than tax receipts, legalizing marijuana in Wisconsin would recognize reality: Cannabis has gone mainstream. Most Americans now live in states where it is legal, and it hasn’t caused lots of problems.

Half of Wisconsin adults 21 or older live within a 75-minute drive to a recreational dispensary, according to the independent Wisconsin Policy Forum. And that was before Minnesota became the latest Midwestern state to allow it. Michigan and Illinois granted adults the freedom to use marijuana in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Iowa, the only other state that borders Wisconsin, allows medical marijuana with a prescription.

Madison area residents can drive just 45 minute down Interstate 39 to a dispensary in South Beloit, Illinois. Bringing the substance back across the border is technically a crime. Yet more than a dozen cities including Kenosha, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Stevens Point and Superior have decriminalized small amounts.

Legalizing it across Wisconsin will make our state more fair for everyone by standardizing access and rules. It also will prevent excessive drug charges applied to people stopped for traffic violations or other minor offenses. Marijuana-related arrests and charges disproportionately affect people of color, which makes it harder to find and keep jobs.

Just as adults are allowed the freedom to drink alcohol responsibly, so should they be able to consume cannabis, which is arguably less dangerous if not beneficial for some.

Consider that doctors in Wisconsin can prescribe highly addictive opioids, which are killing 1,400 people a year in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services. Yet state Republican lawmakers won’t allow medical patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis and other terrible diseases to use marijuana as a mild and less risky alternative for controlling pain and nausea. GOP opposition to medical marijuana is weakening, yet it remains unjustified and inhumane.

Allowing adults to purchase small amounts of cannabis at legal dispensaries for pleasure will help ensure the substance is safe and regulated for users. Unlike street drugs, which can be laced with unexpected substances such as deadly fentanyl, cannabis from dispensaries must be grown according to government health standards.

Marijuana shouldn’t be sold to teenagers because it can harm their developing brains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor should it be sold in bright colors as gummies, which have been mistaken for candy by children.

Yet moderate use by adults is relatively safe. And some of the substantial revenue from legalized marijuana in Wisconsin could be used to address any existing or unforeseen problems.

Under reasonable proposals by Democrats including Gov. Tony Evers, only adults 21 years and older could purchase recreational marijuana in Wisconsin. State residents could possess no more than 2 ounces and six plants for personal use, with tighter restrictions on nonresidents. Motorists would be forbidden from driving while high.

Tribal governments in Minnesota appear well positioned to be the first sellers of legal cannabis there. Private companies will eventually join the market. Wisconsin should draft a licensing system to ensure a fair and open market for a diversity of entrepreneurs.

More than two-thirds of respondents to a statewide Marquette University poll last year favored legal marijuana for recreational use, while fewer than a quarter were opposed.

GOP lawmakers should listen to their constituents, legalize small amounts of the drug and put the tax receipts to work here in Wisconsin.