Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is perhaps best known for dramatically weakening public and private unions in his state—something that has propelled him to the top of the 2016 Republican presidential field.
Over Walker’s long career in state politics, he also accomplished another transformation: increasing Wisconsin’s incarceration rate while making sure private companies had a larger role managing those prisoners.
He rarely talks about it anymore, but Walker’s efforts as a young legislator didn’t just change the Wisconsin criminal justice system—they helped fill Walker’s campaign coffers with money from private prison operators as he ascended from the state legislature to the governor’s mansion.
During his nine years in the state house, from 1993 to 2002, Walker often campaigned as a tough-on-crime Republican who promised new efforts “to protect our families, our senior citizens and our property.”
Walker pushed dozens of proposals in the state house to lengthen criminal penalties, for everything from perjury to privacy invasion to intoxicated boating. In just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole.
Walker’s biggest victory in this area was the state’s “Truth-in-Sentencing” legislation, which ended parole opportunities for many categories of prisoners, and increased prison time for others. “The time has come to keep violent criminals in prison for their full terms,” Walker said in 1996 as he advocated for the bill. Later, as chair of the state assembly’s Committee on Corrections and the Courts in 1998, Walker shepherded the legislation into state law.
At the time, Walker openly credited the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for Truth-in-Sentencing’s success. “Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation,” Walker told American RadioWorks in 2002. “And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation.”
While Walker advocated imprisoning more people, he was also paradoxically decrying overpopulation in Wisconsin’s prisons. “Massive overcrowding threatens our public safety,” Walker announced in a press release less than a month after Truth-in-Sentencing was passed. Indeed, by the early 2000s, there were more than 20,000 prisoners in a prison system originally designed for 10,000.