Land of the free or land of the incarcerated?

Bethanie Gengler, News Reporter

Wisconsin residents have the same likelihood of being arrested and charged as they do of earning a bachelor’s degree. In fact, Wisconsin spends more on incarceration than it spends on the entire UW System, according to Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett.

Gossett was elected to the DA position in 2006 and oversees a staff of about 30 employees in charge of investigating and prosecuting crimes in Winnebago County.

However, the man in charge of prosecuting some of the county’s most severely classified crimes does not believe that being tough on crime is the appropriate solution for many of the cases his office oversees.

Gossett is passionate about criminal justice reform.

“At my very core, I have a very hard time living in the ‘land of the free’ and having an incarceration rate of 700 people per 100,000, which is the highest in the world,” he said. “Our tough-on-crime mantra isn’t working. We can’t do any worse because we’re already in last place.”

Gossett compared Wisconsin’s incarceration rate to that of El Salvador, a Central American country which is known for gang violence and overcrowded, violent prisons.

Wisconsin has 35,000 individuals in jails and prisons and currently spends $1.13 billion per year on corrections. Wisconsin has a higher homicide rate, overdose rate, suicide rate and incarceration rate than both New York and Minnesota.

In addition, many of those incarcerated in Wisconsin are young. By the age of 23, 30% of Wisconsin residents will have been arrested.

About 78% of the offenders the DA’s office evaluates are considered low risk, but after two to three days in jail, their likelihood of returning, or recidivism rate, increases by 17%. At four to seven days, offenders experience a 35% recidivism rate and at eight to 14 days of incarceration, individuals experience a 51% recidivism rate.

“You have to recognize that when the criminal justice system gets involved we are going to make the problem worse by virtue of how we currently operate,” Gossett said.

The average length of time an individual spends in the Winnebago County Jail is about 18 days.

“Putting them in jail might make us feel better for the type of people that feel good that somebody using drugs gets thrown into jail,” Gossett said. “If they sit for a period of time, they will lose their job. They might lose their apartment. If they sit over 30 days, they’ll lose their benefits and then they’ll just be homeless on the streets, begging for money and stealing. … We’re very shortsighted. Everybody knows, but very few people want to do anything to fix the problem.”

In urban areas of the United States, incarceration rates are dropping, but in rural areas, it’s increasing.
“My speculation is that it’s because we don’t have services,” Gossett said. “If we have people with mental health issues, we put them in jail. If we have people with [Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse] issues, we put them in jail. We’re not solving any of the underlying issues.”

Individuals are more likely to overdose after being released from jail, and for individuals who experience mental health issues, their condition gets worse while incarcerated.

“We can’t incarcerate our way out of mental health issues. We can’t incarcerate our way out of the opioid problem. But that’s all we do,” Gossett said. “So why do we keep doing this if we’re all saying we can’t incarcerate our way out?”

The Winnebago County DA’s office is invested in solving the underlying issues regarding mass incarceration. Gossett’s work in criminal justice reform earned him the 2019 Practitioner of the Year award through the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association.

“There are people who have enough courage to stand up to the system and say, ‘This is wrong. This is not what this country is supposed to be,’” Gossett said. “At our office, we approach every criminal case with the thought, ‘How do we solve the underlying issue here?’ And that’s what prosecution is supposed to be.”

One solution that the DA’s office has developed is a justice support services concept. Gossett proposed the concept in April and again at the Oct. 15 Winnebago County Board meeting.

The justice support services initiative is a partnership between various community agencies and would work as a diversion program for low-level offenders. It would allow the DA’s office to provide mental health and AODA assessments and employment skills training. Other services include transportation assistance, counseling services, benefit connections, housing assistance and more.

Gossett developed the program as an alternative to a proposed $18.1 million Winnebago County Jail expansion. He believes the program could help decrease the jail population and eliminate the need for an expansion.

“From the time they get to the DA’s office, let’s get these people started in programming and see how many of them we can keep out of the criminal justice system altogether,” he said. He added that keeping low-level offenders in the community costs taxpayers less money and solves the underlying issues for life.

The justice support services proposal was added to the Winnebago County budget Wednesday and Gossett is hopeful it will be approved.

Gossett said criminal justice reform is long overdue in the United States.
“Our system is broken and we’re paying for it,” he said. “Land of the free? More like land of the incarcerated.”