Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has signed the parole transparency bill, which Republicans crafted after Wisconsin Right Now and victims’ families exposed systemic failures in how the state was notifying victims’ family members. It’s a rare bi-partisan action.
In addition, the bill will require the Parole Commission to publish information about paroles on its website; it requires an open records request to get the information now. In fact, Wisconsin Right Now, along with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, had to sue to get the names of some parolees before the governor’s election last fall.
Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) was the bill’s author, along with Representative John Spiros (R-Marshfield).
“The way Governor Evers and John Tate ran the Parole Commission was reckless and sometimes illegal,” said Wanggaard. “They ignored public safety, the rights of crime victims and the public, and paid little, if any, attention to the consequences of their actions. With this new law, the Commission will no longer be allowed to operate in secret.”
“Shining a light on the Parole Commission is only a start,” said Wanggaard. “This law adds accountability and transparency to the Commission. It doesn’t fix every problem with parole, but it is a good start. I look forward to continuing to improve the parole process to ensure public safety and crime victims are prioritized.”
Although the media largely censored the victims’ voices because a gubernatorial election was going on and tried to ignore the systemic failures in victim notification exposed by WRN, courageous victims’ family members like the Johanna Balsewicz family and Tim Erickson, the son of murder victim Susan Erickson, continued to bravely speak out, urging changes in how victims’ families are treated in the Wisconsin parole process. WRN worked with Erickson to compile a list of suggested changes, including the expanded notification that Evers just signed.
The Balsewicz family courageously fought, successfully, against the release of a convicted wife killer, Douglas Balsewicz, who remains behind bars to this day. They first elevated the issue to the public’s attention. Wisconsin Right Now then exposed the state’s systemic failures to notify many victims’ family members that their loved ones’ killers were being considered for parole and were being released. For example, when WRN called Erickson to get comment about the parole of his mother’s killer, he wasn’t even aware of it. Wisconsin Right Now’s Jim Piwowarczyk and Jessica McBride won a gold Milwaukee Press Club award for the reporting.
A two-time Evers’ appointee, John Tate, gave the green light to free some of the state’s worst killers and rapists, as WRN outlined in a 60-part series. In the wake of the Balsewicz controversy, Evers belatedly requested that Tate rescind the parole of killer Douglas Balsewicz and resign, which Tate did. Tate, bizarrely, is now violence prevention manager for the City of Racine.
In a news release, on August 4, 2023, Evers announced that he had signed Assembly Bill 47, now Wisconsin Act 31, which he wrote:
“Expands the definition of victim to include any member of the victim’s family who was younger than 18 years of age at the time of the crime but is now 18 years of age or older, allowing those individuals to register to be notified when their offender applies for parole or is released on parole or extended supervision; (our note: This failure was one reason Erickson, a small child when his mother was murdered, was not aware of the killer’s parole. The same was true of the daughter of Balsewicz.)
Specifies that notices of an individual’s parole application must be sent at least 90 days before a parole interview or hearing (our note, the previous compressed time frame had negatively affected the Balsewicz family); and
Requires specific information about the actions of the Parole Commission to be posted on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections website, such as any guidance documents that the Parole Commission uses when making parole decisions and monthly and annual totals of the number of persons granted parole, denied parole, and returned to prison.”
“Ensuring transparency, accountability, and appropriate support and notification for victims, survivors, and their families is absolutely vital to the success of the Parole Commission and of our criminal justice system as a whole,” said Gov. Evers. “Parole Commission Chair Erpenbach and I share the same goals of supporting survivors and keeping dangerous individuals off our streets while also ensuring we have a functioning, efficient parole system as required by law. This bill supports both of these important goals.”
According to Van Wanggaard, the bill says that “the Commission is required to post the paroles granted, denied, and revoked on their website and parole guidance documents on a monthly basis.”