Save Wisconsin's Earned Release Program

For WNPJ's 20th anniversary, a grassroots lobby day was held on February 23, 2011.  One of the focus issues was the opposition of Arizona-like Anti-Immigration Policies.  Below is information that was created for the lobby day and to help with on-going advocacy.

Issue Backgrounder: Earned Release Program

Wisconsin's Earned Release Program, created in 2009, established a commission to review petitions for release from inmates who are:

  • Nonviolent offenders
  • Within 12 months of completing their sentences
  • Have earned “good time” by following prison rules and participating in programs which can reduce their risk of re-offending

Prisoners who meet one of the following conditions are also eligible:

  • Are age 65 and have served at least 5 years of their sentence
  • Are age 60 and have served 10 years of their sentence
  • Have an “extraordinary” health condition or need medical care not available in prison

At the time of its passage, the Doyle administration estimated 3,000 Wisconsin prisoners would be eligible for Earned Release and calculated savings over the first two years of the program as $30 million, but the program began very slowly – as of May 2010, only 138 had been approved for release and 93 had actually been released.


ASK FOR LEGISLATORS:  We ask that the legislature give the Earned Release program a chance and oppose any effort at repeal this much-needed program


What the critics are saying – and our responses:

Criticism: Earned Release is freeing dangerous criminals, endangers the public.

Response: First of all, the program is restricted to nonviolent offenders. Second, although it is possible that a person released through Earned Release may go on to re-offend, but this isn't a fair way to judge the program (unless you're willing to argue we shouldn't release anyone at any time.) The current recidivism rate in Wisconsin is nearly 40% for all prisoners released from prison, Earned Release's requirements make its participants significantly less likely to re-offend.

Criticism: The program burdens local government by releasing prisoners into the community without taking into account the money needed at the local level to handle this influx of former prisoners.

Response: It currently costs about $30,000 to keep one prisoner in a Wisconsin prison for one year. So yes, some of the savings from Earned Release should be sent to communities to support reintegrating former prisoners. But generally speaking, the opponents of Earned Release don't support those programs either. 


Quick Facts:

Wisconsin imprisons about three times as many people as Minnesota, even though both states have roughly equal populations and crime rates.

Wisconsin now spends as much to imprison roughly 20,000 inmates (more than $1 billion a year) as it spends on the 173,000 students and 28,500 faculty and staff in its university system.

Wisconsin imprisons its African-American population at a rate twelve times that of whites, the highest racial disparity in imprisonment rates in the nation.

Other states that have recently implemented Earned Release programs: Texas, Nevada, Indiana, Michigan



  • Join WNPJ’s Prisons work group by contacting the office at (608) 250-9240 or emailing WNPJ Program Director Steve Burns at:
  • Check back at the WNPJ website: for updates.

Additional issues/campaigns

  • Reading groups on Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in an age of colorblindness.
  • Winning voting rights for those on probation and parole
  • Challenging Department of Corrections restrictions on prisoners access to books
  • Saving Wisconsin's prison farms, which provide useful work and job training to prisoners while providing healthier food to prisons and staff

And please support the following WNPJ member groups which work on prison issues and voting rights:


Madison-area Urban Ministry
Contact: Linda Ketcham
Address: 2300 S. Park St. Suite 2202, Madison WI 53713
Phone: (608) 256-0906 E-Mail:  

Money, Education and Prisons Task Force
Contact: Esther Heffernan, O.P.
Address: PO Box 5311, Madison, WI 53705
Phone: 608-663-2218
E-Mail: or  

Wisconsin Books to Prisoners
Contacts: Camy Matthay, John Peck, Sarah Quinn, Dennis Bergren and Molly Stentz
Address: Rainbow Bookstore, 426 W. Gilman, Madison WI 53703
Phone: 608-257-6050

American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin
Contact: Stacy Harbaugh
Address: 122 State St., Suite 200, Madison WI 53701
Phone: 608-469-5540 FAX: 608-255-2688