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Milwaukee gets a shot of political courage

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Joel McNally
December 31, 2007

Something entirely new seems to be breaking out among Milwaukee politicians. Unbelievably, local officials have begun expressing something that sounds remarkably like political courage regarding criminal justice.


Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm gave a year-end interview to the local newspaper looking back on his first year in office.


Chisholm is the first new district attorney to be elected in Milwaukee County since 1968. That was the year I started as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal. I still remember the TV ads from the campaign between E. Michael McCann and defense attorney Jerry Boyle.


The ads on both sides featured loudly slamming cell doors. That’s why it was surprising when Chisholm cited as his greatest accomplishment not how many lawbreakers he had incarcerated, but a large number he had chosen not to incarcerate.


Chisholm was proud of more than 600 cases that had been diverted from prosecution with the offenders referred to drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and other alternatives that could save their lives instead of simply fast-tracking them into prison.


Treatment that can change lives costs as little as $10,000, Chisholm said. The total cost of prosecution, court expenses and incarceration swells to as much as $250,000 while doing little to reduce crime by dealing with its causes.


The far easier path politically is to talk tough on crime and call for more incarceration even when it wastes money and reduces public safety by returning offenders to the community more dangerous.


Chisholm said something startling about diversion programs that demonstrates the depth of his commitment.


“Is there going to be an individual I divert or put into a treatment program who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet. Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach, though.”


Chisholm expressed out loud the threat that hangs over every more intelligent program to try to actually change criminal behavior by teaching people how to live and work in the community. He was announcing ahead of time he’s ready to face the political firestorm the media would inevitably create.


Every professional who runs an alternative to incarceration lives in fear of inflammatory media coverage if a participant in their program commits a heinous crime. The right-wing talk shows crank up their hate machines and demand that rather than providing namby-pamby “treatment” for criminal behavior that offenders be cast into the deepest and darkest dungeons.


The irony, of course, is that the criminal justice approach that fails repeatedly is prison itself. We read all the time about people who were formerly incarcerated who commit heinous crimes.


Yet, not once have all those talk shows campaigned to close down the prisons. They do not even call for improving prisons to make them work better by adding more drug and alcohol treatment or job training programs to prepare people to succeed on the outside. All they want are worse prisons to continue releasing people back into the community angrier and more violent with more barriers to legitimate employment.


Chisholm realizes people in treatment or alternative programs can commit just as horrible crimes as people returning from prison. But he’s prepared to defend treatment instead of prison for all the good it does.


Under the so-called Common Ground initiative, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is about to embark on an alternative program of his own. The Milwaukee Police Department has been gathering information on lower-level criminal participants. Rather than using that evidence to put people behind bars for the short term, the city intends to give “salvageable” offenders the option of entering treatment programs or job training that could divert them from crime permanently.


On my radio show, I asked the mayor if, like the district attorney, he would be willing to take the heat and continue that Common Ground approach even if a participant committed murder. He said he would, noting that politicians are attacked on crime no matter what they do, so they might as well try to do the right thing.


Maybe political courage on criminal justice is contagious.



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