Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat running against incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, has repeatedly advocated for cutting the state’s prison population in half, eliminating cash bail and other progressive criminal justice reforms.
Before entering public office, Barnes previously worked as an organizer for Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, a Milwaukee-based social justice group, when he teamed up with another organization, Wisdom, to launch a 2012 initiative aimed at cutting Wisconsin’s prison population in half.
The 11×15 campaign sought to reduce the state’s prison population to 11,000 inmates by 2015, Barnes told local media at the time.
Barnes later served two terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly before he was chosen as the running mate to now-Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
During their campaign in 2018, Evers signed onto Barnes’ idea of halving the state’s prison population. Evers, who at the time was the state schools superintendent, said he wanted to do that by allowing inmates to be released for good behavior, creating or expanding court diversion programs and treating 17-year-old offenders as juveniles instead of adults, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported at the time.
Evers did not put a time frame on halving the prison population, but he called it a “goal” and said he would not release violent offenders.
Months before the election in July 2018, Barnes celebrated Evers and other Democratic gubernatorial candidates for supporting his initiative.
“6 years ago when we kicked off the 11×15 campaign to cut the prison population in half, we could hardly find elected leaders or candidates to get onboard,” Barnes tweeted. “To see it embraced at a gubernatorial candidate forum makes me proud to have worked with such visionary organizers/activists.”
After Evers and Barnes won the election in November 2018, narrowly defeating incumbent Republicans Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch, Barnes continued supporting the prison initiative, tweeting in October 2019, “Cool, let’s cut our prison population in half.”
Since Evers and Barnes entered office, Wisconsin’s prison population has been reduced by about 15%. In 2019, the population was 23,777, compared to 20,123 today, according to 2022 statistics from the state Department of Corrections.
The vast majority of those currently incarcerated – 68% – are classified as “violent” offenders, meaning it would be impossible to cut the population in “half” without releasing at least some of those violent offenders.
In 2016, when he was still a state legislator, Barnes sponsored a bill to end cash bail in Wisconsin. The measure, which did not make it out of committee, would have required a defendant to be released unless there was “clear and convincing evidence” that he or she was a flight risk or a danger to society, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
During a September 2018 podcast, Barnes also said he supported allowing inmates to vote.
“I’ve long championed restoration of voting rights immediately once someone has served their sentence, and I mean, honestly, even when someone is locked up,” he said.
Barnes has also made statements online with a soft tone on the defund the police movement, and his campaign has received funding from five groups that advocate for defunding cops.
“Defunding the police only dreams of being as radical as a Donald Trump pardon,” Barnes tweeted in July 2020.
On Sept. 3, 2020, Barnes blasted the criminal justice system after the police officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor did not face charges.
“You can feel how you want about to calls to reform, defund, or abolish but the question is, how can a system that allows this to happen continue to be upheld?” he wrote.
The lieutenant governor also spoke at a major meeting for the Center for Popular Democracy — a far-left group that supports defunding the police and claims Israel targets Palestinians with “violent attacks.”
“Defund police. Defund police states,” the group tweeted in May of last year. “Defund militarized occupation. Defund state-sanctioned violence.”
Barnes has stated in the press that he does not support the defund the police movement, despite his past statements.
Johnson’s campaign slammed Barnes as “dangerous” in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“Lt. Gov. Barnes is a socialist liberal who cares more about catering to his ‘woke’ base than keeping Wisconsin families safe,” Johnson campaign spokesman Alec Zimmerman said.
“Crime is out-of-control in Wisconsin, and we can’t afford to elect a radical who cares more about criminals than their victims. Mandela Barnes is dangerous for Wisconsin,” he said.
Barnes’s campaign did not respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.
Fox News’ Houston Keene contributed to this report.