When incarceration works

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Joel McNally
Monday, December 3, 2007

The whole idea of incarceration was supposed to be to make our communities safer. So why is it that as we have massively increased incarceration in recent decades, our communities have become less safe? Clearly, we have been locking up the wrong people.

An example of incarceration that could actually increase public safety came when Federal Judge Charles Clevert handed down near maximum prison terms to three fired Milwaukee police officers convicted in the beating and torture of Frank Jude Jr.

Clevert sentenced Jon Bartlett to 17 years in prison and Andrew Spengler and Daniel Masarik to 15 years each for severely beating Jude and abusing another African-American with a knife when the two made the mistake of showing up at a drunken house party of off-duty Milwaukee police officers. The stiff federal sentences finally brought closure to a disgraceful episode in Milwaukee police history that exposed the cityís racial divide even further when an all-white county jury acquitted all three officers involved in the 2004 beating.

Suddenly, we were thrown back decades to the 1960s, when the U.S. Justice Department had to bring federal charges to exact some measure of justice after all-white local juries routinely acquitted white defendants accused of murdering or abusing African-Americans.

What made Clevertís sentences historic was that since the í60s, although lynchings are no longer openly tolerated by communities, other racial disparities within our criminal justice system have actually increased. In Wisconsin, African-Americans, who are only 6 percent of the stateís population, now account for nearly 50 percent of all prisoners.

When the white majority creates a justice system that is used overwhelmingly against minorities instead of members of the privileged majority, thatís a pretty shaky use of the term ďjustice.Ē

Thatís why substantial prison terms to those who have always believed they were above the law can act as a real deterrent. Suddenly, the rules have changed. Violent crimes will be treated as violent crimes, no matter who commits them.

Our criminal justice system previously was based on strict class system. Members of the upper class were the judges. Members of the middle class sat on the juries. And members of the lower class got to be the defendants.

Until now, police officers have always been considered part of the protected middle class. If that has now changed, police officers will have to reconsider how they treat citizens, even African-American ones.

What next? Could it possibly be that police shootings will no longer be automatically ruled as justified in cases where citizens are unarmed and facing in the other direction?

Prison doesnít really work very well as a deterrent when it becomes an inevitability based on race and economic circumstance. On the contrary, those who live in neighborhoods where every young male around them is being fast-tracked into prison can lose all hope of ever expecting to do anything else. Some even begin preparing for incarceration by wearing prison fashions and adopting fierce personas as protection against anyone ever punking them out. Their basic accessory to strike fear in others becomes a gun.

There is growing evidence that harsh prison terms actually increase violent crime in our communities. After a long period of confinement with people even worse than themselves, the formerly incarcerated return to their old neighborhoods angrier and more dangerous than they were before.

With the stigma of having been in prison, they have fewer opportunities to ever find legitimate employment to support themselves. Thatís why tough-on-crime politicians are really making our communities less safe.

The real purpose of prisons should be to separate truly dangerous people from society. And itís hard to imagine anyone more truly dangerous than people we allow to openly use deadly weapons and physical force who feel that laws do not apply to them.

By removing Bartlett, Spengler and Masarik from the community for a long time, Clevert sent a shocking message that could change the culture within the Milwaukee police department: Those prisons they built for other people now await police officers themselves if they commit violent crimes.

Last updated: 12:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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