Gov. Tony Evers vetoed legislation Friday that would have put thousands of more people behind bars at a cost of nearly $1 billion in the next few years.
Also Friday, Evers signed legislation that toughens drunken driving sentences and requires police departments that use body cameras to keep their footage for at least four months. In many cases, they will have to keep it longer under the new law.
Republican lawmakers who approved the crime measures last week downplayed their cost and contended they would have helped keep the public safe. The first-term Democratic governor, who campaigned on eventually cutting the prison population in half, argued the proposed laws were far too expensive.
“I will not move Wisconsin in the wrong direction on criminal justice reform and public safety,” Evers said in his veto message.
Evers issued his vetoes of the high-profile legislation two days after canceling a GOP tax cut.
The vetoes come as Republicans raise alarms about carjackings and reckless driving and as Milwaukee is gripped with grief by the mass shooting this week at the Molson Coors brewery.
But Democrats note crime in Milwaukee is down. Last year was the second in a row with fewer than 100 homicides in the city. Nonfatal shootings and carjackings also dropped.
The costliest piece of legislation that Evers vetoed, Assembly Bill 805, would have required Evers’ Department of Corrections to attempt to revoke probation and other types of state supervision for offenders if they were charged with committing new crimes. That would have led to judges putting nearly 4,700 people behind bars a year, according to an estimate from the department.
More people in prison means higher costs for taxpayers. The department projected the legislation would cost about $200 million over the next two years. It would also force the state to build two new prisons at a cost of about $350 million each, according to estimates.
Together, the construction and operational costs would come to $900 million in the short term. Building the new prisons also would have exacerbated the state’s long-running trouble with hiring and retaining correctional officers.
Evers also vetoed Assembly Bill 806, which would have allowed judges to lock up teens whenever they committed offenses that would be treated as felonies if they were adults. That could have led to more teens being put behind bars despite a recent bipartisan effort to reduce the number of juveniles who are incarcerated and close the state’s juvenile prison, Lincoln Hills School for Boys.
Another bill that Evers vetoed, Assembly Bill 809, would have put more restrictions on who can be released from prison early. There are already limits on when inmates can be released early, but Republicans wanted to tighten them.
Evers also vetoed Assembly Bill 808, which would have put up obstacles to dismissing illegal gun possession charges in some cases. Evers said he opposed interfering with the discretion of prosecutors and judges.
Privately, Republicans expected the vetoes but saw a contrast with Democrats on crime as a good way to help them in the suburbs in this fall’s elections.
The bills passed exclusively with GOP votes, though a handful of Republicans sided with Democrats to oppose them.
Wisconsin Republicans have parted with Republicans in Congress and other state legislatures. GOP lawmakers in other states have voted to cut their prison populations, and President Donald Trump in December approved a law to limit mandatory minimum sentences and allow the early release of more inmates.
Evers did approve legislation that would put drunken drivers in jail for at least 18 months in most cases when they committed their fifth and sixth offenses. Under Senate Bill 6, judges could impose shorter times behind bars if they believed it would be in the best interest of the community and would not put the public at risk.
Under the previous law, those found guilty of fifth and sixth offenses were subject to mandatory minimum sentences of six months.
“Too many Wisconsinites have experienced the consequences of drunk driving firsthand, and it continues to be a concerning issue across our state,” Evers said in a statement.
The police camera legislation that Evers signed, Senate Bill 50, does not require law enforcement agencies to use body cameras, but those that do must keep their footage for at least four months and often much longer.
Law enforcement will have to keep any footage for more than 120 days if it shows an arrest, police questioning, the use of force by an officer, or an incident that resulted in injury or death. Defendants, prosecutors, police officials and courts can also require the footage to be kept for more than 120 days.
When footage is kept for more than 120 days, law enforcement will have to hang onto it until all appeals are exhausted or courts determine the footage no longer needs to be retained.
The public will be able to get some footage under the state’s open records law, but the police can hold back footage of victims, minors, and people filmed in their homes and other places where they have an expectation of privacy.
The legislation was put together by a panel that included representatives of law enforcement and the news media.
Evers also signed a labor deal with state troopers Friday that would lift their starting wages by $6,000 a year. It’s the first new contract for troopers in five years and was reached after Republican lawmakers balked at an earlier plan that would have provided larger raises.