The controversy surrounding the denied parole of convicted murder Douglas Balsewicz has become an issue in the campaign for governor. It also offers a chance to offer perspective on why Balsewicz is one of the few inmates eligible for parole.

The Parole Commission initially approved Balsewicz release from prison after he served less than 25 years of an 80-year sentence for repeatedly stabbing his wife, Johanna, to death in front of their children in 1997.

The victim’s relatives asked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to block Balsewicz’s release, although governors have no authority to overrule the Commission. Evers asked Parole Board Chairman John Tate, an Evers appointee, to rescind the parole decision, saying Johanna Balsewicz’s family was not consulted.

Tate acted to keep Balsewicz in prison after the governor’s appeal.

But Rebecca Kleefisch, former lieutenant governor and Republican candidate for governor, denounced Evers and Tate.

“Tony Evers’ liberal policies on crime are radically unpopular,” Kleefisch said. “It shouldn’t take an election year to do the right thing for Wisconsin families. John Tate must still be fired to prevent this from continuing.”

Republican Sen. Steve Nass wants the Legislature to convene an extraordinary session, which would let senators fire Tate by refusing to confirm him for the job he has held for years. But legislators have adjourned for the year and are not scheduled to return to the Capitol until January.

Time to ask: How did we get here?

There were about 19,900 adult inmates in Wisconsin prisons on May 13, and an estimated 2,000 of them—or about one in 10—were sentenced before Dec. 31, 1999.

That’s the date Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing (TIS) law took effect.

That law meant, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau summary, “For offenses occurring on or after December 31, 1999, offenders were required to serve 100% of the court-determined confinement time (prison) and 100% of the extended supervision time (community release).”

The legal shorthand for the estimated 2,000—including Balsewicz—sentenced before the end of 1999 is that they are “old law” inmates and, because they are not affected by TIS, they are eligible for parole.

State law gives the four-member Parole Commission, which had a low profile during the eight years of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, sole authority to release “old law” inmates. The Commission does not issue annual reports summarizing its actions.

The Parole Commission, which has no authority over the nine in 10 adult inmates sentenced under the truth-in-sentencing law, has been more active since Evers took office in 2019. When he campaigned for governor in 2018, Evers said he would work to find ways to safely reduce the state’s prison population.

“The problem is comparing sentences prior to TIS with those after TIS,” a former assistant Dane County district attorney in the 1990s explained.

He added:

“A rule of thumb, when I was in the Courthouse, was that you would only do about 25% of the time given by the judge. Even a first-degree murderer could be out in 13 years. Everybody in the courtroom knew the math, and relied on the math.

“But it looked so good when the press reported that the judge hammered the guy. Now, under TIS, you’re going to do every day of your sentence because there is no parole or time off for good behavior.”

The Parole Commission’s decisions are separate from the pardon process, which Evers controls.

Evers recently announced 49 more pardons, bringing his total since taking office to 498. Walker issued no pardons.

The governor’s office explains what a pardon does:

“The Wisconsin Constitution grants the governor the power to pardon individuals convicted of a crime. A pardon is an official act of forgiveness that restores rights lost when someone is convicted of a felony, including the right to serve on a jury, hold public office, and hold certain professional licenses. A pardon does not expunge court records.”

The former Dane County prosecutor praised the governor for granting pardons, which Evers says offers “redemption and forgiveness” to those who have moved “beyond their past mistakes to be productive, positive members of their communities.”

The former prosecutor was disappointed that Evers had interfered with the parole process to keep Balsewicz in prison. But, he conceded, “The [Balsewicz controversy] was tailor made for a ‘soft on crime’ attack.”

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com.

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