Treatment Instead of Prison HIA (Case Story)

November 2012

An HIA examining an increase in funding for treatment alternatives in Wisconsin.

The Health Impacts of Treatment Instead of Prison: A Case Story

The problem

Wisconsin, like other states, is locking up growing numbers of non-violent drug and alcohol offenders. These people need treatment – not prison, where they’re unlikely to get help. Prison disrupts families, increases recidivism, makes communities less safe, and costs far more than treatment. WISDOM, a statewide congregation-based community organizing network, is campaigning to cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half by expanding access to treatment programs.

Keeping kids with parents, even if they’re not the best parents, as long as they are safe – the outcomes are always better to remain with parents.

– Wisconsin judge interviewed for HIP’s focus groups

What we did

In 2012, HIP partnered with WISDOM, state agencies, academics, and other experts to conduct an assessment of the public health impacts of increasing funding to $75 million a year for Wisconsin’s treatment and diversion programs. The year-long study drew on data from state and national diversion programs and insights from focus groups with returning citizens, their families, and officials from the law enforcement, judicial, and public health systems.

What we found

We found overwhelming evidence that expanding alternatives to incarceration would reduce the prison population, reduce crime, lower recidivism, and strengthen families by keeping up to 1,600 parents a year out of prison each year. Because the cost of treatment is about one-fourth of the cost of putting someone behind bars, the state would also save up to $2 for every dollar spent on alternative treatment programs.

The biggest benefit, I believe, to the HIA is that it changed the questions people ask about criminal justice. Instead of this being about what people deserve, it gets to be about what actually makes things better. It also clearly identifies addiction and mental illness as public health concerns, calling for public health solutions. In the end, the biggest accomplishment so far of the 11×15 campaign is that it has shifted the discussion.…The discussion right now is not about whether we should have less people in prison — it is about how to achieve that.

– David Liners, Director of WISDOM


The HIA had a tremendous impact on the conversation around treatment over incarceration in Wisconsin. Every major media outlet in the state covered the release of the HIA, and elected officials referred to the findings in their budget discussion. Ultimately, the legislature expanded the budget for treatment alternatives from $1 million to $4 million, and from 7 programs to 34, a huge increase – but only a fraction of the HIA recommendation. Half of the counties in Wisconsin applied for the funding, showing a deep need. WISDOM continues to use the HIA in meetings with legislators, to organize their communities, and to keep the issue in the media spotlight. They are embarking on their second HIA, focused on reducing the number of people who return to prison for a technical violation of probation or parole.

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