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Sheriff Shut-’Em-Down

Jan. 20, 2010
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Just two weeks into the new year, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke claims he already has a $5 million budget shortage that will force him to shut down major programs in his department.

That should immediately prompt the public to question not only Sheriff Clarke’s management skills, but also his political motives for such an extraordinary announcement.

Those who suspect political chicanery are right on target.

With both the county executive and mayor of Milwaukee running for governor, Milwaukee County’s right-wing African-American sheriff is always looking for a way to grab publicity for his next political attempt at higher office.

Beyond that, shutting down all alcohol and drug treatment, job training and other rehabilitation programs in the House of Correction fits in perfectly with Clarke’s mean-spirited, conservative ideology.

Clarke stands alone among local leaders in law enforcement in opposing programs to reduce recidivism by providing drug and alcohol treatment and other programs that could change the lives of offenders before they become more dangerous to the community.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is expanding diversion from prosecution for those who can benefit more from treatment and other programs than from incarceration. Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers and other county judges are increasingly recognizing the value of sentencing alternatives in reducing crime.

Chisholm, Kremers and other criminal justice professionals succeeded last year in persuading the County Board to restore funding for the Community Justice Resource Center, an alternative treatment and education program also known as the Day Reporting Center, after Clarke and County Executive Scott Walker tried to trash the program.

(Full disclosure: Kit McNally, executive director of the Benedict Center, who is my wife, was one of the community leaders who helped establish the Day Reporting Center back in 1998.)

A few weeks after Kit and others spoke up to save the Community Justice Resource Center, Clarke abruptly canceled a contract the Benedict Center had for years to provide library services to inmates at the County Jail and the House of Correction.

Now Clarke, on very thin pretext, is abruptly announcing he has to shut down drug and alcohol treatment, job training and job placement for those at the House of Correction.

Is there a budget crisis already in the Sheriff’s Department that is forcing such drastic measures? Not really. Every department in county government has some financial uncertainties in their 2010 budgets.

That’s because Walker and the County Board included estimates of budget savings that may or may not be successfully negotiated with county unions.

To use unknown possible shortages as an excuse to close down services for the entire year that can actually reduce crime in Milwaukee is a bizarre action for any law enforcement professional.

Hard Line, Easy Sell

But, of course, Clarke is not any law enforcement professional. He is one who has built his political popularity, particularly among conservative white suburban voters, by denouncing other African-American political leaders and claiming to take a hard line against crime.

Clarke knows shutting down all services for those who are incarcerated to cut his own budget and save money for taxpayers is an easy sell to many of his most fervent supporters. They hate the incarcerated as much as the sheriff does. They’re not going to weep for any inmates who don’t get drug treatment or job training.

They might care if they knew about the studies showing 60% or more of offenders released into the community without such programs commit new crimes. The recidivism rate for offenders who participate in treatment programs or job training can be less than a third of that.

But demagoguery trumps sociology every time.

Interestingly, in addition to cutting out all programming, Clarke also plans to close two dormitories at the House of Correction and release 120 offenders to home confinement with electronic monitoring.

What that really tells you is there are at least 120 low-level offenders, and probably many more, who pose so little threat to the community that not even Clarke thinks they should be incarcerated.

Actually, Clarke’s announced actions could promote the kind of disruptive behavior at the House of Correction the sheriff can use to justify not only removing programs, but also imposing harsher punishments.

Most of the inmates, who are either pre-trial or serving sentences of less than a year, are housed in open dormitories. As many as 60 are in a dormitory with nothing but a single bunk of their own. There are a few picnic tables in common areas.

Do you suppose 60 guys in constant contact all day with nothing to do, no classes to attend, no treatment programs, not even a book from a library to read, might possibly have a few disagreements among themselves? Do you suppose that could lead to fights or acts of violence?

Is that what Sheriff Clarke really wants?


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