Scott Walker

Scott Walker: Not the Candidate for Conservative Criminal Justice Reform

Record does not suggest support for the 'Right on Crime' movement.


More than just the guy who fought the unions and won.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker doesn't seem to have a lot to say about domestic criminal justice on his newly launched presidential campaign site. He does mention his role in authoring Wisconsin's Truth in Sentencing Act, which, as one might guess from its title, is not about offering relief to people in prison. It did the exact opposite, sending thousands more people in Wisconsin to prison for long stretches, often for non-violent crimes.

He may not be running on a tough-on-crime record, but a close look at Walker's legislative history indicates that's exactly the kind of conservative he is. BuzzFeed has taken such a look and has a list of the type of crime legislation Walker sponsored while serving in Wisconsin's Assembly. Among the legislation, he introduced a bill intended to authorize chain gangs, attempted to outlaw letting prisoners (and guards) from lifting weights, and sponsored several bills that would enhance sentences or create new mandatory minimums.

BuzzFeed notes that Walker is now a bit quiet about his law-and-order background. Campaign aides declined to answer BuzzFeed's request to comment about Walker's past positions on crime legislation. The Marshall Project, a non-profit media site focused on covering the criminal justice system, recently pointed out how Walker's position on handling crime separates him from some of his fellow GOP nominees:

[H]is implacably hard-line stance on clemency and parole, as well as his seeming unwillingness to endorse the "Right on Crime" agenda of decriminalization, reduced sentencing, and alternatives to incarceration, is at odds with much of the field.

Rand Paul wants to repeal the federal ban on marijuana and help rehabilitated young adults expunge their criminal records. Ted Cruz thinks drug-related offenses should not be punished so harshly, and has suggested that the plea-bargaining system is unfair. At last year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Rick Perry famously asked, "You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money." Jeb Bush is a Right on Crime signatory. Even Chris Christie, who fits the mold of a Scott Walker (with his union-busting and self-proclaimed refusal to cow to the opposition), recently wrote that "we will end the failed War on Drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill."

But Gov. Walker doesn't seem to think there is much of a crisis in the criminal justice system.

"People being incarcerated for relatively low offenses is not a significant issue in the state of Wisconsin," he said a few weeks ago during a forum for the Republican contenders at Disney's Magic Kingdom. He did not mention that Wisconsin incarcerates twice as many people as Minnesota (which has about the same population) and a higher percentage of African-American men than any state in the nation.

Walker has a reputation for not granting pardons, opposes parole, and he proposed dissolving a clemency advisory board. He has shrugged off efforts at marijuana legalization—ambivalently, not particularly harshly. As Jacob Sullum noted, he seems inclined to allow other states to go their own way on that particular issue.

Who knows whether we will see some changing of positions in Walker's campaign as bipartisan support for sentencing reform continues rolling along. One thing all this coverage of Walker's previous legislative work highlights: He has successfully managed to make the bulk of the media coverage about him about his actual record in Wisconsin. Whether primary voters like Walker or not, it seems clear they'll be making that decision heavily influenced by the knowledge of what Walker has already done, not just on who he is or whatever he may promise as a candidate.