Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration in Wisconsin


Partners: Human Impact Partners; the Wisconsin Department of  Health Services; the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute; the Wisconsin Council of Churches; Community Advocates Public Policy Institute; Voices Beyond Bars; Madison-area Urban Ministry; the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office; the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future; WISDOM local affiliates; Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the Greater Milwaukee Foundation; The Needmor Fund.

Project Location: Wisconsin

Contact: David Liners, executive director, WISDOM, 414-736-2099 or [email protected] 

Project Description

Unneccessary incarceration  threatens the health and safety of people entering prison, as well as the emotional and financial well-being of their families and communities. WISDOM—a faith-based organization that includes representation from 145 congregations and 19 different religious traditions across Wisconsin—and its partners are using their grant funding to research the health benefits of increasing funding in the state budget that would  enable Wisconsin counties to provide effective, safe, local alternatives to incarceration. 

In 2012 there were approximately 23,000 people—about half a percent of the population—in state prisons in Wisconsin. The majority of those held in Wisconsin’s prisons and jails are non-violent offenders who could benefit from alternatives to incarceration. Over half of the prison population struggles with mental illness, and estimates are that as many as 85% have substance abuse issues. The goal of this project is for the state of Wisconsin to provide sufficient funding in the July 1, 2013 - June 30, 2015 budget for counties to be able to initiate or expand proven local programs that offer alternatives to incarceration, such as drug and alcohol treatment courts, mental health courts, day reporting centers,  and more.
To generate the public and political will necessary to support this systemic change, WISDOM and its partners conducted a health impact assessment which illustrates the potential health and equity benefits that the proposed budget shift could afford to prisoners, their families, and their communities.  The HIA determined that increasing funding for treatment alternatives to prison and jail would make Wisconsin safety by reducing crime and recidivism, improve recovery for substance abuse and strengthen families and communities. The study also highlighted the cost savings that could be anticipated in future budgets when the prison population is decreased significantly.  After a successful roll-out of the Health Impact Assessment (including dozens of media stories, many large public gatherings, and dissemination of the HIA summary to more than 2,500 decision-makers and opinion leaders), WISDOM members  continue in their efforts to educate the public and policymakers about treatment alternatives to incarceration.

Why this work is important:

  • Unnecessary incarceration threatens the health and safety of people entering prison, as well as the emotional and financial well-being of their families and communities.
  • The Health Impact Assessment found that in Wisconsin, it costs approximately $32,000 per year to incarcerate someone.  The more expensive treatment alternatives cost just under $8,000.
  • Expanding treatment alternative options across the state could accommodate nearly 3,100 of the 8,000 prison admissions per year and nearly 21,000 of the 227,000 jail admissions per year.
  • More than half of those incarcerated are parents. Treatment alternatives would enable them to remain with or nearby their children, and be better financially able to support them.

Relevant Information from the 2014 County Health Rankings:

  • In Wisconsin, the ratio of population to mental health providers is 1,050:1; this is almost double the ratio of top performing counties—536:1
  • Wisconsin’s violent crime rate is 248 per 100,000 individuals. 
  • In Milwaukee County, the violent crime rate is triple the state rate (751 per 100,000 individuals).
  • Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is under 7 percent; the rate for top U.S. performers is under 5 percent.