Locked up: Groups advocate for reduced prison population with treatment programs for non-violent inmates

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- There are currently more than 21,000 people in the Wisconsin Prison System.

And right now there's a new push to get a significant number of those inmates out from behind bars and into treatment programs.

A new study calls for $75 million of the corrections budget to be spent on inmates with drug and alcohol problems.

On Tuesday, WEAU 13 News spoke with JONAH, a local faith-based group that's part of the study.

JONAH is part of a group called WISDOM.

The faith-based organization just completed a year-long study of Wisconsin prisons and found there are thousands of non-violent inmates who could be better helped with treatment.

The goal of the 11 by 15 Campaign is clear.

Cut the Wisconsin prison population in half to 11,000 by 2015.
How can they do it?

The study from WISDOM and Health Impact Partners has some possible solutions.

“A lot of people who are currently in prison, we can trace their offenses back to issues related to mental health, drugs or alcohol,” said John Stedman, an organizer with JONAH.

Stedman said the study shows those types of non-violent offenders can be better helped with treatment or diversion programs.

“The outcomes are better, there's less recidivism, families are kept intact. To send an appropriate or eligible person through a treatment alternative or problem solving court costs about 1/4 of what it costs to incarcerate them,” Stedman said.

He said current specialty courts and programs could be beefed up.
But he said prisoners would still have to be held accountable by seeing programs through and keeping a job.

Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer said the county has already invested in front-end programs; deterring re-offenders and making sure the non-violent don't stay long at the jail.

“Do we have the people you and I are fearful for that are going to reoffend? And the answer is yes. We’ve eliminated a lot of people in these programs,” Cramer said.

The sheriff said his department has been working closely with groups like JONAH to develop better treatment programs.

“All of a sudden this model goes to Chippewa, Dunn Counties and out, there will be less people probably going into our state prisons,” Sheriff Cramer said.

Stedman said the next step is convincing lawmakers to take action.

State Rep. Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls said she supports cost-cutting programs like these.

Messages for State Senator Kathleen Vinehout were not returned.

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