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Bad Ideas Never Die

Aug. 30, 2016
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Photo Credit City of Milwaukee, Flickr CC

In any debate over crime and public safety, we can always expect many of the worst ideas of the past to resurface once again even though they’ve already been shown to reduce public safety rather than improve it.

Still, there couldn’t be a worse time for the Milwaukee Common Council’s Public Safety Committee to release a series of mean-spirited, mostly failed and discredited proposals to “get tough” on crime. 

Coming in the aftermath of violent protests in Sherman Park over a deadly police shooting, the so-called “Public Safety Action Plan” is a nasty slap in the face for responsible community leaders sincerely working together to reduce the racial and economic disparities that feed violence.

The chair of the Public Safety Committee is Ald. Bob Donovan. In April, Mayor Tom Barrett overwhelmingly won re-election with 70% of the vote over Donovan, who was soundly rejected pushing the same harsh, anti-crime solutions of more police and more incarceration. 

Yet there it all was again, the wish lists of Donovan and right-wing radio repackaged as an action plan for Milwaukee. The terrible ideas ranged from oppressive to dangerous to absolutely counterproductive. Hundreds more police officers flooding into black and brown communities and another 150 sheriff’s deputies in county parks. 

Above all, incarceration, incarceration and more incarceration. Expansion of the county’s juvenile detention center to incarcerate more children at an early age. Construction of a regional detention facility to replace the state’s brutalizing youth prison system—now under federal investigation. Eliminating electronic monitoring for both youths and adults and replacing it with even more incarceration.

Thrown in was a brand-new institution of incarceration described as a “boot-camp or boarding school facility in the county for at-risk youth.”

The right-wing loves boot camps, even though corrections professionals know they do virtually nothing to change anyone’s life for the better. The right just really likes the idea of boot camps treating young minorities like dirt and yelling in their faces. 

The last remaining law enforcement official to support boot camps locally— no surprise—was Sheriff David “Fox News” Clarke

Clarke eliminated all beneficial education, drug and alcohol treatment and job training programs when he ran the House of Correction. His only programming was a mean, little boot camp program for a small number of offenders. That’s the primary reason the county removed the House of Correction from Clarke’s control and appointed a professional superintendent to restore job training, education and treatment that reduces recidivism and increases community safety. 

Enlightened public officials are now realizing incarceration is a terrible way to teach people how to live nonviolently in a free society. Even worse is the collateral damage to the community when incarceration becomes a lifetime obstacle to legitimate employment for anyone with a criminal record. 

We Need Concrete Action on Racial Disparities

Fortunately, a majority of local officials not named Donovan or Clarke appear to know this. 

When Donovan’s proposals were finally released, Council President Ashanti Hamilton and other aldermen already began distancing themselves from the very worst ideas such as increasing incarceration.

Hamilton held up a copy of Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, The New Jim Crow, comparing the enormous racial disparities in mass incarceration to previous intentional efforts throughout U.S. history to deny equal rights and opportunities to African Americans.

The Public Safety Committee proposals are only intended as a starting point for community discussions about improving public safety, Hamilton said. But if that’s the goal, there are certainly far more knowledgeable groups to lead such discussions. 

One would be the Community Justice Council, chaired by Chief Judge Maxine White, which includes all the major players working to reduce disparities in criminal justice locally. Only Sheriff Clarke is fighting real improvements the council is making in criminal justice with major outside funding.

Another would be the county’s newly formed Office of African American Affairs, which was created specifically to deal with racial disparities in the community.

The unrest in Sherman Park already has propelled discussion far past Donovan’s outmoded ideas. Community leaders are ready to move beyond mere talk to concrete action to increase equal opportunities for African Americans—more access to jobs and educational opportunities, fewer heavy-handed police encounters and less incarceration.

It’s just a pittance, but the $4.5 million Gov. Scott Walker announced to start creating jobs and rehabbing or demolishing foreclosed properties in Milwaukee will be meaningful if it’s really the beginning of the state providing resources to reduce hardships in impoverished neighborhoods instead of slashing state shared revenue and making urban life harder.

Hey, it’s never too late to start doing the right thing.

Institutional racism can be defined as all the practices the white majority continues without thinking that they promote racial oppression and unequal treatment and opportunities for other races.

Donovan’s Public Safety Committee has come up with a handy list of really bad ideas everyone should be working together to root out instead of perpetuating.


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