Wisconsin’s prison population drops to lowest level in more than 20 years during COVID-19 pandemic

MADISON – Wisconsin’s inmate population dropped to levels it hasn’t seen in more than 20 years during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report released Thursday.  

At the end of February, the state’s prison population stood at about 19,580 inmates, nearly 16% lower than what it was a year earlier. It’s the smallest it has been since the fall of 1999, according to the report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Similarly, the number of inmates in county jails plummeted in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 hit Wisconsin. By April 2020, their average daily population had fallen to about 8,340, a 35% decline from a year earlier.

Over the last year the county jail population has begun to creep back up, though it remains far below its pre-pandemic level, according to the report.

Until the pandemic, the state’s prisons had held record numbers of inmates in recent years. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers campaigned in 2018 on eventually cutting the prison population in half. At the time, the prison population was about 23,600 and Evers remains far from reaching his goal, even with the reductions caused by the pandemic.

Trials have slowed during the pandemic, resulting in fewer people being sent to prison for now. That will change when the pandemic ends and judges take up more cases.

In addition, Evers in March 2020 issued an executive order blocking new admissions to state prisons to help limit the spread of COVID-19. About 1,250 inmates who will eventually be sent to prison are being held for the time being in county jails, according to the report.  

The Evers administration has also reduced the instances in which it returns offenders to prison for violating the rules of their extended supervision after they are released.

While the prison and jail populations are down, costs likely aren’t dropping as dramatically, according to the report. A smaller population reduces the cost of food and programming, but not many other expenses. For instance, a cell hall that has fewer inmates often needs the same staffing level as one that’s full.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.