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Gov. Tony Evers recently proposed legalizing recreational marijuana, saying that it would provide more state revenue, create jobs and reduce criminal justice system costs.

But in many ways, Wisconsin has effectively decriminalized marijuana.

In 2019, only 0.23% of all Wisconsin prison admissions were for marijuana cases that did not include more serious crimes, according to a new policy brief published by the Badger Institute. “Few marijuana offenders in prison,” authored by Badger Institute Policy Analyst Julie Grace, finds incarceration is rare for pot-only convictions.

Only 21 of the more than 9,000 people who were sentenced to prison in 2019 were guilty of solely a marijuana offense or combination of such offenses, including possession, manufacture and intent to deliver. Of those 21 cases, only three were first-time offenders.

In order to determine potential savings in the criminal justice system, the Badger Institute partnered with Court Data Technologies, a Madison firm that analyzes Wisconsin court data, to examine whether judges sentenced individuals convicted of marijuana offenses to prison or jail or neither.

“Very few Wisconsinites are being sent to prison or jail for marijuana-only related offenses,” said Grace. “That means that legalizing recreational marijuana will not have much of an impact on prison costs or population. Given this reality and the fact that marijuana possession receives only a civil penalty in many municipalities across the state, Wisconsin has in large part already decriminalized marijuana.”

Sentences to jail — by definition less than a year — were more common than sentences to prison but were still relatively rare. Statewide, 651 people were sentenced to jail for marijuana offenses in 2019.

It is clear, however, that very few marijuana cases charged in circuit court — only 16% — result in either jail or prison time.

All told, 15% of all cases charged solely with marijuana possession result in a jail or prison sentence. Twenty-six percent of all possession with intent to deliver cases charged and 23% of all manufacture/deliver cases charged result in a jail or prison sentence.

Assuming sentences are only for one year, cost savings to the prison system would be around $1 million. Cost savings within the jail system are more difficult to estimate because rates differ at the county level, but the state rate for reimbursement to counties is $60 a day per inmate.

Read the full policy brief here.

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