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The Quiet Revolution

Dec. 6, 2012
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Sheriff David Clarke
One of the biggest frustrations of public officials who sincerely want to serve the public—and there are more of them than you might think—is how easily self-promoting demagogues can draw media attention compared to qualified professionals who are quietly working to create positive change.

That’s true right now with a collaborative effort of top officials you probably haven’t heard about even though you already know many of the players. Their efforts could soon result in smarter criminal justice policies and improved public safety statewide.

The executive committee of the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council includes most of those responsible locally for criminal justice policy.

The council includes Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele, District Attorney John Chisholm, Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers, Police Chief Ed Flynn, Sheriff David Clarke, Tom Reed of the public defenders office, Supervisor Willie Johnson (representing the county board), the regional director of state corrections, and other justice professionals.

(Full disclosure: Kit Murphy McNally, my wife, is the citizen representative on the executive committee and council.)

This group is going into its third year and has won technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections to improve the county’s criminal justice system through evidence-based decisions creating alternatives to mass incarceration.

Chisholm describes the twin goals as both reducing crime and reducing the costs of expensive incarceration when there are better alternatives.


Sheriff Clarke’s the Odd Man Out

Sadly, the only time most people hear about Milwaukee County’s evidence-based improvements—which will be closely monitored to document whether they succeed here as they have elsewhere—is when those changes are publicly attacked by the only member of the Community Justice Council who has consistently opposed them.

No one will be surprised to learn the odd man out among cooperating community leaders and justice professionals is Sheriff Clarke. And that Clarke’s latest sniping has crossed over into sheer absurdity.

Clarke’s overheated publicity machine blasted the bail set on someone charged with a misdemeanor, the notorious bike path fanny-feeler.

Clarke called the accused man’s $500 bail proof that the court’s new universal screening system, which determines bail based on evidence of risk and needs instead of a judge’s whim, was a “boondoggle.”

Clarke chose to champion this particular misdemeanor because the incident already had been ridiculously overplayed in the media.

Two women joggers said the offender rode up behind them on a bicycle and touched them as he went by. Clarke loves nothing better than being the hero of ridiculously over-covered media stories.

What the sheriff actually demonstrated was that he doesn’t understand the purpose of bail.

The purpose of bail is to make sure that someone charged with a crime returns to court. Bail is intentionally set so high that a person remains incarcerated only when that individual is extremely violent and a clear threat to the community.

That’s because no one has determined whether the accused is guilty of anything when that individual is charged with a crime. In America, we’re innocent until proven guilty. Only in police states do arresting officers get to act as prosecutor, judge and jury, a system Clarke seems to prefer.

In a misdemeanor, no matter how inappropriate and over-publicized, there’s little question this man will show up in court. He’s being monitored by a criminal justice agency that also tests him regularly for drugs and alcohol, a factor in his charge.

Clarke’s frustration is that criminal justice professionals, no matter how conservative, are increasingly realizing that mass incarceration is not economically sustainable or the best way to reduce crime.

For years, outside consultants have argued Wisconsin wastes millions by expensively incarcerating low-level, non-violent offenders whose behavior can be permanently, humanely and far more economically changed with treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness.

Incarceration of these individuals actually produces more crime and makes communities less safe because people returning from prison with a record are often denied legitimate jobs and driven to crime to survive.

Gov. Scott Walker learned that as county executive and as a founding member of the Community Justice Council. That’s why he appointed a state-level Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to examine the possibility of extending Milwaukee’s evidence-based improvements statewide.

That’s why Walker and even some conservative Republican legislators have been more receptive than you might expect to the statewide 11x15 Campaign for Justice launched by WISDOM, a faith-based social justice coalition of churches, to cut Wisconsin’s prison population of 23,000 in half by 2015.

If those efforts succeed in the Legislature as they have in Milwaukee, the largest feeder into the state’s soaring tax-eating corrections budget, the savings to taxpayers and, even more important, the positive change in people’s lives will be revolutionary.

That quiet revolution by responsible public leaders will make a far greater difference in justice and public safety than some showboat in a cowboy hat running to the media to fight evidence-based change. 


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