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Scott Walker on Crime and Punishment: Back to the ‘90s

As his rivals ease up, one candidate hangs tough

Governor Scott Walker knew exactly what he was doing Wednesday as he signed two bills expanding access to guns only a week after a gunman had murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina.

“If we had pulled back on this,” the likely Republican presidential candidate said as he abolished Wisconsin’s 48-hour waiting period for purchasing handguns (which had been in effect since 1976) and authorized off-duty and retired cops to carry firearms inside public schools, “I think it would have given people the erroneous opinion that what we signed into law today had anything to do with what happened in Charleston.”

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signs a gun bill at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office on June. 24.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signs a gun bill at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office on June. 24.

Walker knew what he was doing, too, when he chose to hold the signing ceremony at the sheriff’s office of Milwaukee County, rather than with the city of Milwaukee’s police department. The partisan divide between Milwaukee and its suburbs, especially on issues like gun control and urban crime, is wider than in any of America’s 50 largest cities except New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel — and its metro area is the most racially-segregated in the nation, according to the Brookings Institute.

After the signing, David A. Clarke, the sheriff of the county, said in an email that Gov. Walker had “demonstrated the priority he places on public safety.” The city of Milwaukee’s chief of police, Edward A. Flynn, on the other hand, has repeatedly labeled Walker “anti-urban” for opposing community-policing grants. He recently asked Clarke, “Gosh, Sheriff, do you think criminals should have guns?”

So Governor Walker knew what he was doing when he signed the two gun-rights measures alongside Clarke, not Flynn, just days after a mass shooting — the same way he knows what he’s doing when he calls for drug-testing recipients of food stamps and Medicaid, or when he refuses to pardon a single Wisconsinite during his five years as governor.

In a field of conservatives seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Walker has set out to position himself as the most audaciously conservative — including on issues of crime and punishment, where several of his Republican rivals have come to see our punitive criminal justice system as costly, ineffective and inhumane.

Whether this works with Republican primary voters, let alone the general electorate, remains to be seen.

“When considering a run for president, as Walker is,” says Darrell West, a political scientist at the Brookings Institute, “all politics are not local. What has worked for him in Wisconsin, or Christie in New Jersey — especially on an issue like criminal justice, where the politics are shifting fast — may not work on the national stage.”

Gov. Walker’s steadfastness on guns1 — he has a 100 percent rating from the NRA — is hardly unique among the field of Republican candidates.

But his implacably hard-line stance on clemency and parole, as well as his seeming unwillingness to endorse the “Right on Crime” agenda of decriminalization, reduced sentencing, and alternatives to incarceration, is at odds with much of the field.

Rand Paul wants to repeal the federal ban on marijuana and help rehabilitated young adults expunge their criminal records. Ted Cruz thinks drug-related offenses should not be punished so harshly, and has suggested that the plea-bargaining system is unfair. At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Rick Perry famously asked, “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money.” Jeb Bush is a Right on Crime signatory. Even Chris Christie, who fits the mold of a Scott Walker (with his union-busting and self-proclaimed refusal to cow to the opposition), recently wrote that “we will end the failed War on Drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.”

But Gov. Walker doesn’t seem to think there is much of a crisis in the criminal justice system.

“People being incarcerated for relatively low offenses is not a significant issue in the state of Wisconsin,” he said a few weeks ago during a forum for the Republican contenders at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. He did not mention that Wisconsin incarcerates twice as many people as Minnesota (which has about the same population) and a higher percentage of African-American men than any state in the nation.

Meanwhile, Walker has been a downright throwback to 90’s-era “tough on crime” politics in his handling of clemency and parole.

“He has absolutely, utterly refused to grant pardons,” says P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who keeps a record of the pardons issued by all 50 governors. “His approach is simply: ‘I won’t do it.’”

Walker, who has said that pardons would “undermine” the criminal justice system, did sign off on a clemency “advisory board” in 2010. But the panel remained “inactive” until 2014, when he proposed dissolving it.

Walker has also actively opposed parole: In 2010, a year before he became governor, early release was granted to 13 percent of the inmates who requested it; by 2013, that figure had dropped to six percent.

“There are other governors who have been tough about clemency and parole,” says Ruckman. “What’s different about Walker is that there’s no principle behind his stinginess. He hasn’t articulated the reasoning for his criminal-justice harshness.”

Marilyn Walczak of the Justice Initiatives Institute, an organization that advocates justice reform in Wisconsin, agrees. “I honestly don’t think he gives it a second thought,” she says. “He’s been ‘tough on crime’ his whole political life, and now he talks less about it — but the policies remain the same.’”

Early on in his career in the Wisconsin legislature2, Walker became the point man on criminal justice for the Republican caucus, and he soon became the chair of the assembly’s Committee on Corrections and the Courts. He rose to statewide prominence by sponsoring (and leading the push for) the state’s “truth in sentencing” law, which abolished parole and lengthened sentences for thousands of offenders.

“The time has come to keep violent criminals in prison for their full terms,” he said in 1996.

During the 1997-1998 legislative session alone, he authored, sponsored, or co-sponsored 27 bills to broaden the definitions of crimes, increase sentences, and limit parole.

Many Republicans — and Democrats too — were hard on crime in the 90’s. What separates Scott Walker is that he has hardly budged from his 90’s-era positions or embraced the new “Smart on Crime” approach favored by other conservatives.

He ran for governor in 2010 on the old-fashioned platform of “protecting our families, our senior citizens, and our property.” He backtracked on former Governor Jim Doyle’s efforts at sentencing reform and worked to maintain the “truth in sentencing” rules that he spearheaded as a legislator. Under his watch (and for the first time ever), spending on corrections overtook the budget for the University of Wisconsin system. And when he and many of the other candidates for president were asked by the Brennan Center for Justice, earlier this year, to write about their visions for criminal justice reform, he spent much of his op-ed arguing for “the imposition of drug testing for employees,” which he said would help put ex-offenders on a path to employment.

That brand of rally-the-base politics seems to work in Wisconsin, a deeply polarized state — both racially and electorally — where urban police chiefs are trying out some of the most progressive models of policing3 in the country, while suburban voters only a county away throw their electoral muscle behind “tough-on-crime” policies at the state level.

In Milwaukee, where Scott Walker honed his politics, the racial and political “middle” is nonexistent, especially on criminal justice, and winning it is hardly a priority.

But nationally? Will Gov. Walker pay for not joining the party — literally — on criminal justice reform?

“It’s the last days of Walker’s way of doing things, the retro, Nixon-in-1972, law-and-order type of campaign he seems like he’s about to run,” says Ruckman. “There will always be people who respond to that. But they are increasingly few.”

Then again, says West, there may yet be a streak of “tough on crime” left in the Republican party — a cohort of national voters for whom anti-urban crime rhetoric remains salient, to be tapped by whichever candidate bucks the reformist trend.

“In a 15-person field,” he says, “it’s good to have a niche. Scott Walker following his own course on criminal justice — that’ll get him a lot of voters to himself.”