Wisconsin lawmakers consider parole transparency bill

Wisconsin lawmakers were set to take public comments Wednesday, March 1 on a Republican-authored bill that would force the state's embattled parole commission to abide by open meetings laws and post its decisions online.

The Assembly Committee on State Affairs was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposal. The committee wasn't expected to vote on the bill, but the forum offered stakeholders a chance to sound off on commission shortcomings.

Republicans have spent months criticizing the commission after it decided in May 2022 to parole convicted murderer Douglas Balsewicz after he served 25 years of his 80-year sentence. Balsewicz, now 55, had fatally stabbed his wife, Johanna Balsewicz, in West Allis in 1997.

The commission's chair, John Tate, one of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' appointees, approved the decision, leaving Johanna Balsewicz's family outraged. A slate of Republicans who were running for governor at the time demanded Evers intervene.

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The governor doesn't have the power to unilaterally rescind paroles. But in the face of blistering GOP criticism and with the November election just months away, Evers met with Johanna Balsewicz's family and afterward asked Tate to rescind Douglas Balsewicz's parole. Evers said at the time that the family didn't get an adequate chance to respond.

Tate complied and resigned weeks later, again at Evers' request. He said in his resignation letter that no parole decision pleases everyone but he did his best to be fair. Evers picked former Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach to replace him in January.

The bill from Republican state Rep. John Spiros and Sen. Van Wanggaard would apply Wisconsin's open meetings laws to the commission — right now the commission is exempt — and require the commission to post notice of all its meetings on the state Department of Corrections website.

The Department of Corrections would be required to post online any guidance documents the commission uses when making parole decisions. The agency also would have to post the names of any individuals granted or denied parole as well as those returned to prison for parole violations along with monthly and annual totals.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsinn Professional Police Association have registered in favor of the bill, according to Wisconsin Ethics Commission records. No groups have registered in opposition.

Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu didn't immediately return messages inquiring about the bill's prospects.

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Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback responded to a request for comment by pointing to two sentences in the governor's budget proposal that call for "clarifying the responsibilities" of the commission to notify crime victims' families when a convict applies for parole and is released on parole.

The budget language does not elaborate and Cudaback didn't respond to a follow-up message seeking more details.