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Gov. Thompson: It’s time for second chances

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 18, 2019

By Gov. Tommy Thompson 

MADISON — Serving as Wisconsin’s 41st governor was the most rewarding time in my career. We fought hard to implement historic reforms in education and welfare to improve the lives of our most vulnerable citizens, and we presided over the single-largest period of job growth in our state’s history.

We also greatly expanded our state’s prison system, believing our families are safer as a result. But time and reflection provide powerful historical lenses and I’ve also come to believe that our corrections system and incarceration practices are financially unsustainable and provide questionable outcomes worthy of strenuous review.

Today, 22 percent of Wisconsin adults have criminal records. More than 90 percent of the individuals in our prisons will return to our communities at some point in the future. 

Looking back, I regret not spending more time considering, “What does tomorrow look like for the person sitting in prison and can we work together to provide the necessary tools to help them become independent and successful? How do we create opportunities for individuals post-release to be contributing members of their communities?”

In so many ways, the difficulties facing these individuals are the same as those facing families trapped in the cycle of poverty.

We believed then, as we do today, that the only way to change the trajectory of a person’s life is to give them the tools they need to be independent and successful. We called it compassionate conservatism, but we couldn’t have made these life-changing reforms without help and input from our friends on both sides of the aisle. 

To make positive and lasting change in someone’s life, you have to really understand who they are, where they came from and how they got to where they are today. You have to be willing to replace contemptuous stereotypes with difficult facts. Facts so difficult they may lead us to believe the situation is hopeless. But, the situation is not hopeless. We need people from all walks of life — politicians, business leaders, subject matter experts in the criminal justice system and those individuals directly impacted by the system — to come together to create opportunities to help people to become successful.

We have done this in the past and that is why our reforms such as W-2 were outcome-based and focused on changing one life at a time. For us the process was slow and fraught with unforeseen problems. The upfront costs were significant, too. We could not have anticipated all the barriers people faced, because our own experience was so different. Our challenge was not just to educate and train people for work, but to recognize some people struggled in situations that to many of us seemed commonplace. There was no history of work, higher education or training to emulate.

Our reforms gave them a chance.

Today our prisons are full of people who want another chance to succeed. At the same time Wisconsin’s population is aging and our workforce is shrinking. We have an opportunity to put our compassion to work again for individuals and their families, our communities and employers.

The Second Chance Initiative would provide certified job and entrepreneurial tools, and life-skills training to prisoners who have both the desire and the will to succeed. Along with life-skills training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, we have the opportunity to change the trajectory of many people’s lives. 

Not unlike the successful W-2 welfare reform program we built, this may cost more up front. But in the end, it will be less expensive than paying to re-imprison these individuals as repeat offenders. And just as important, we will be giving people a second chance to take care of their families and to be role models for their communities. This will also strengthen the safety of our communities throughout Wisconsin.

I take great pride in sharing the credit for what we accomplished on key issues, including welfare reform and school choice, successful policy innovations in which Wisconsin created a blueprint adopted across the nation. It’s time for Wisconsin to again lead the way by improving the lives and ensuring the success of every member of our community.

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