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Prison break As inmate populations and budgets skyrocket, a Marquette Law professor rethinks our approach to crime and punishment.


Michael O’Hear

Professor, Law

As crime rates rose across the United States from the 1960s through the 1990s, the response from many Americans and the politicians who wanted their votes was predictable: Send criminals to prison for a long time. As Marquette Professor of Law Michael O’Hear explains, getting “tough on crime” with stricter sentences made sense on an emotional level but wasn’t supported by research that existed at the time. Today, we are living with unintended consequences that include an overcrowded prison system, an explosion in state and federal corrections budgets and an erosion of the social fabric of poor neighborhoods. “There are some offenders who require long-term incarceration,” O’Hear says. “I’m not saying we should close down all the prisons tomorrow. But there are offenders who will do better if you deal with them in the community than if you send them away.” In his new book, Wisconsin Sentencing in the Toughon-Crime Era, O’Hear analyzes the root causes of mass incarceration in Wisconsin, examines its effects and draws conclusions that have applications beyond state borders.

O’Hear also works to clear up two common misconceptions: While truth-in-sentencing laws and similar restrictions have contributed to mass incarceration, so has the discretion of judges and prosecutors; and while the war on drugs was another contributing factor, drug crimes account for less than 20 percent of the national prison population. Today, O’Hear says the country is spending more than $80 billion a year on prisons. Wisconsin’s budget for corrections exceeds the budget for its state universities. The social cost, though, is much greater. “It’s important to think about mass incarceration not only as a financial issue, but also as an ethical issue, as a social justice issue,” O’Hear says. “Incarceration has a tremendously damaging effect on people’s lives, and it’s not just the offender himself or herself, but also family members.” O’Hear has collaborated with Marquette Law School Poll Director Charles Franklin and Dr. Darren Wheelock, associate professor of social and cultural sciences, to examine public attitudes toward sentencing issues. “Politicians have an ability to shape public opinion by the way they frame the issues,” O’Hear says. “If less punitive policies are presented in the right way, I think our data show there would be quite a bit of support.” CHRIS JENKINS

Read more in Marquette Lawyer magazine, including Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack’s preliminary inquiry into race and sentencing in criminal courts at

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