Two bills in the Wisconsin Legislature score cheap points at the expense of incarcerated people.
Welcome to Capitol Oaf Watch, a Tone Madison column that tracks the horrible, foolish, and absurd things Wisconsin state legislators do and say. Look for it once per month, and perhaps more frequently in the future—keeping up with all the oafery is a tough job for a tiny publication like ours.
If you think there’s any chance of achieving “bipartisan” criminal justice reform in Wisconsin, then please look long and hard at this month’s three-pack of primo oafs, State Senator Julian Bradley (District 28), Assembly Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (District 15), and State Sen. Van Wanggard (District 21).
Bradley and Sanfelippo joined forces earlier this month to propose a bill that would require incarcerated people in Wisconsin to give up their $1,400 stimulus payments toward restitution for crime victims before spending it on anything else. Like other Republicans, they’re practicing some selective outrage over the fact that the latest federal COVID-19 relief bill allows people convicted of crimes to receive stimulus payments, even though the same was true of the stimulus payments issued under the Trump Administration and a Republican-controlled Senate.
Bradley, who is Black, tried to make this about championing the rights of Black crime victims. Republicans also used the fact that Bradley is Black to cynically deflect criticism about the bill’s obvious racism. A recent report by the Sentencing Project found that Wisconsin has some of the highest disparities in the country when it comes to incarcerating Black people. The connection between poverty and incarceration is also well-documented. Instead of exploring how all these different factors combine to disproportionately harm Black people, Bradley places crime victims and criminals in a vacuum, flattening the complex needs and circumstances of both.
The scant text of Bradley and Sanfelippo’s proposal doesn’t do anything new for crime victims. Here’s the full text:
Notwithstanding s. 301.32 (1), any COVID recovery rebates from the federal government received on or after the effective date of this subsection by a person who is incarcerated in this state shall be applied first to satisfy any restitution the person has been ordered to pay.
That’s it. It’s a nothing bill, pure political theater. It doesn’t actually deliver more money to the crime victims Bradley and Sanfelippo pretend they’re championing (probably because tacking on extra penalties to a sentence after the fact would be too draconian even for our fucked-up system). It doesn’t strengthen any of the healthcare, housing, or counseling resources a person might need after surviving an act of violence. The intended audience for this bill isn’t crime victims or Black people: It’s the overwhelmingly white electorate in these two legislators’ suburban Milwaukee districts.
Someone who’s been convicted of a crime and ordered to pay restitution already has to do it, because a judge said so, and state statutes already give the state broad latitude to charge an incarcerated person “for some or all of the costs to the department of the prisoner’s incarceration.” The law also gives prison officials a lot of control over how prisoners spend their money. And that’s before we factor in the various private, for-profit companies that get to nickel-and-dime incarcerated people and their loved ones for commissary food, phone calls, and so forth. Much like supporters of the “Marsy’s Law” initiative Wisconsin voters approved last spring, Sanfelippo and Bradley talk a big game about supporting victims but are really just fueling the culture of impunity that surrounds police, prosecutors, and prisons.
On a similar note, Wanggard recently co-sponsored and testified in favor of a bill that would block the state from prioritizing incarcerated people in its COVID-19 vaccination rollout. This one, Senate Bill 8, is also brief:
The department of health services may not, in implementing the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, allocate or distribute COVID-19 vaccinations to an incarcerated person before beginning the allocation phase in which the individual would otherwise receive the COVID-19 vaccination under the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. The department of health services may not prioritize incarcerated persons within an allocation phase.
Wanggard, a former Racine police officer and a damp kielbasa with bangs, has set himself up in recent months as something of a Republican leader on criminal justice reform. He has authored a package of bills, with some support from Democrats, that he claims would increase accountability and transparency in Wisconsin police departments. They include creating more reporting requirements for use-of-force incidents. None of his proposals would really strike at the deep-down problems of policing, and one would cut state funding for local governments that reduce their own police budgets—a measure that would basically force communities to fund policing at a certain level. “Accountable policing and mandatory police funding” is not a formula that adds up.
But more importantly, no one should take Wanggard’s efforts seriously when he so casually dehumanizes people caught up in the criminal justice system. (Wanggard has also been photographed wearing a face mask with a fascist “thin blue line” design.) In his testimony on Senate Bill 8, Wanggard distinguishes between incarcerated people and elderly people—with statements like “A 25-year-old who raped a 60 year old asthmatic cancer survivor would be entitled to receive the vaccine before his victim”—even though the prison population on the whole is getting older. For instance, a 2018 article in Wisconsin Lawyer found that “More than 1 out of 20 Wisconsin prisoners are now 60 or older.” Wanggard distinguishes between incarcerated people and “law abiding essential workers,” even though prisons are a source of obscenely cheap labor for both government and private industry. Here in Wisconsin, prison jobs include making furniture for the state, and chances are Wanggard has sat on some of it. Wanggard does say that he’s not trying to block vaccines for incarcerated people who are already in other at-risk groups, but essentially his testimony tries to wall incarcerated people off from the ranks of the deserving.
Wanggard also makes the shocking argument that “prisoners are, by definition, already quarantined,” while also acknowledging that thousands of incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19. Prisons and jails, including in Wisconsin, have served as hives of COVID-19 infection. Close quarters and poor health care mean that an individual incarcerated person is anything but quarantined within prison. But what matters to Wanggard is that the people in prison are kept away from the people he clearly considers inherently more worthy.
The mentality behind all this is obvious. For Republicans (and quite frankly too many Democrats with them), criminal justice isn’t really about public safety or accountability or rehabilitation. It’s about maintaining a permanent class of captive scapegoats and subjecting them to endless, indiscriminate abuse.
Chances are that Gov. Tony Evers would veto both of these bills, if they even made it that far. But the rhetoric surrounding them is still harmful, and really that’s the whole point. Wanggard, Sanfelippo, and Bradley don’t want you to consider that someone who’s incarcerated might also have a family, might also need a measly $1,400 to start rebuilding a life when they get out, might also be entitled to some basic level of humane treatment, might also be striving to make a contribution to society, might this very second be earning pennies per hour to make a chair on which a Wisconsin legislator can park his useless ass. Prisoners are politically useful for oafish lawmakers, because no matter what a person’s actual sentence is, you can always sever more of their humanity, dignity, and agency. Going along with it won’t make you safer—it will just fuel some extraordinarily cheap and sadistic political careers.
Of course, just about every day in Wisconsin politics involves more than one act of oafishness, so at the end of each Capitol Oaf Watch, we’ll shout out at least a couple other oafs. This time around, they are as follows. If you would like to report an oaf, please oaf-box us at [email protected].
Suddenly concerned about women’s sports oaf: Rep. Barbara Dittrich
Not sure he’s really working oaf/reigning oaf champion in perpetuity: Speaker Robin Vos
Election conspiracy theory-peddling oaf: Rep. Shae Sortwell