Why is Wisconsin locking up twice as many people as Minnesota?

Minnesota and Wisconsin are pretty similar in population, size, culture, and crime rate. So why is Wisconsin locking up twice as many people?

Minnesota and Wisconsin are pretty similar in population, size, culture, and crime rate. So why is Wisconsin locking up twice as many people? Getty Images/iStockphoto

Minnesota and Wisconsin are similar in a lot of ways. Similar population, similar size, similar wealth, and similar affinities for putting cheese inside of hamburgers. But there are a few ways in which they’re strikingly different.

For example: If you live in Wisconsin, you are twice as likely to get locked up as you are in Minnesota.

A recent piece in the Economist says both states started to toughen up their prison sentences in the 1970s. Between 1978 and 2015, Minnesota’s inmate population rose from 132 residents out of 100,000 to 434 out of 100,000.

But in that same time period, Wisconsin vaulted its rate of locking people up from 178 per every 100,000 to 925 people per 100,000.

Today, Wisconsin’s jail and prison population still towers over Minnesota’s, 35,000 to 16,000. Its prisons require $150 per every Wisconsinite to stay running -- roughly twice what is required per each Minnesota citizen.

And for all that money and heartbreak, it hasn’t made much of a dent in Wisconsin’s share of crime. The rates are similar in each state.

Of course, the entire United States, not just our mitten-shaped neighbor, has a problem with mass incarceration. The nationwide prison population has increased 500 percent over the past 40 years. Still, in Wisconsin, it’s more like 700 percent.

While Wisconsin has remained uncompromising with its corrections practices -- pushing harsher penalties and longer sentences -- Minnesota has been taking a gentler approach.

Over the past few years, our state has softened its drug offense penalties, used courts to correct nonviolent offenders’ behavior without need for jail time, even created an independent sentencing coalition that tells lawmakers how much added cost new legislation will put on prisons… and, by extension, taxpayers. Even the toughest tough-on-crime legislators tend to be less so when it means making their constituents pay more.

Wisconsin hasn’t done any of those things, and also spends less on its social services, which means drug addicts, people struggling with mental health disorders, and the poor get less help and more jail time.

Wisconsin Democrats have known this for years, and they’ve been campaigning on cutting the state’s prison population in half -- if for no other reason than because collectively they cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says that would only unleash 4,000 violent offenders on the state’s innocents, and he won’t stand for it. He also said at a press conference in August that he sees “no value” in visiting his state’s prisons. In all his years as governor, he never has.

Time will tell if Wisconsin’s more progressive lawmakers will make any headway on cutting down the state’s reliance on locks and keys. Meanwhile, Walker’s administration is currently figuring out whether they can build a new prison to handle the overflow of inmates. If they end up doing it, the new facility will cost $300 million to construct and millions of dollars a year to operate.