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New Rock County program aims to divert people from court system


A new Rock County program takes its cue from national efforts to eliminate bias from criminal proceedings. It could lead to more offenders seeing their cases dismissed.

Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary also hopes it will save the cost of court proceedings and free his prosecutors to give more of their attention to the most serious cases.

The district attorney’s office has run a program for about 40 years called deferred prosecution, which offered first-time offenders in low-level crimes the option of getting their charges dismissed.

About 65 people per year got their cases dismissed or had charges amended to a noncriminal citation through deferred prosecution, said program Director Gina Ciaramita.

They were arrested for shoplifting, drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana and the like.

O’Leary and Ciaramita said they hope many more people get the same result through the new Rock County Diversion Program.

(The program should not be confused with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office’s diversion program, which allows people to serve jail sentences outside the jail while wearing monitoring bracelets.)

“It’s sort of an early intervention, before they get too involved in the criminal justice system,” O’Leary said.

A major difference is that the new program will be open to a wider range of offenses and not only to first-time offenders.

People will not be eligible if they are accused of operating while intoxicated, firearms offenses, domestic violence, certain drug offenses, felony sex offenses, some violent crimes and public welfare and entitlement charges.

The focus is on participants’ likelihood to commit more crimes. That likelihood will be measured by a short questionnaire, called an assessment tool.

Officials could not divulge the questions because they are the property of the company that sells the questionnaires, but the questions have been validated through research to assess the likelihood the person will commit another crime.

The questions focus on the person’s criminal history, attitudes, alcohol/drug problems, family, companions, emotional/personal characteristics, and education and employment history.

The tool is also intended to weed out conscious or unconscious bias, O’Leary said.

That’s because blacks and other minorities are imprisoned in numbers that are out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

O’Leary recalled attending a national training on this topic about five years ago, when officials from around the country asked him why Wisconsin led the country in disproportionate incarceration, “and I didn’t have an answer, so that’s kind of what we’ve been researching and analyzing in our system.”

Bias can enter the decision-making when the neighbor who reports a crime is biased, if the arresting officer is biased, or if a prosecutor or judge is biased, O’Leary said.

Offenders who qualify will agree to pay restitution if applicable, attend one short education session and remain crime-free for two to three months.

The education session will be a talk given by diversion staff. Eventually, participants will watch a video.

Part of the instruction shows the offenders what happens when their cases are entered on the online court-records system known as CCAP: Potential landlords, employers and colleges will look at that record, O’Leary said.

The process is simple and seems easy, but research shows most people at low risk for re-offending don’t need a lot of help and are self-correcting, said Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen, Rock County justice assistance manager.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in that low-risk group are so mortified at having come into the criminal justice system, they’re never going to come back,” O’Leary said.

Getting these low-risk people out of the system quickly is a very good thing for society, research shows: The more they are involved with police, courts and jail, the more they are exposed to higher-risk people, which makes them more likely to commit more crimes, Pohlman McQuillen said.

The program will not charge a fee, so people with low incomes will be able to benefit.

The program won’t clear a person’s case from the state’s public, online court-records system immediately. The charges will disappear after two years, Pohlman-McQuillen said.

Pohlman McQuillen noted that a conviction, even for a low-level crime, can keep a person from getting an apartment or a job. Convictions also can mean contact with high-risk criminals, which can lead the low-risk person into crime, research shows.

The goal is to stop doing things that can, in the end, make society worse, Pohlman McQuillen said, but to still hold offenders accountable.

The program started June 10. Plans are to see if the program truly reduces the number of people committing new crimes.

O’Leary credited the county board and County Administrator Josh Smith with providing funding for experts to analyze the data.

The program is the product of the local Evidence-Based Decision Making group that involves judges, corrections officials, prosecutors, police and others and which O’Leary leads on the state and local levels.

Once the diversion program gets going, the Rock County Evidence-Based Decision Making team plans a similar program for medium-risk offenders that will be called deferred prosecution. Details of that program are still being worked out.

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New YMCA CEO vows to continue community outreach


For the past three months, Angie Bolson has worked to mend fences and listen to members, staff and community stakeholders as one of the interim directors of the YMCA of Northern Rock County.

The YMCA announced Monday that Bolson will take a permanent job as the organization’s new CEO, effective Aug. 1.

“Angie brings extensive YMCA knowledge and a proven track record of success,” YMCA Board Chairman Steve Yeko Jr. said in a news release.

Bolson started her Y career 20 years ago as a camp counselor and eventually became camp director. She also served as director of child care services, program operations director and vice president of strategic initiatives for the Glacial Community YMCA, which has branches in Watertown and Oconomowoc.

She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and teaching, according to her LinkedIn account.

“I’m really sold on the mission of the Y,” Bolson said Monday. “I think it reflects me on a personal level and a professional level, so it’s a fit all the way around.”

For her, the Y’s mission is about inclusion and meeting community needs.

In recent months, Bolson and other interim staff have worked on “best practices” with the board and staff of the Janesville Y, she said.

They’ve also worked to reconnect with the community after the departure of former CEO Tom Den Boer.

Den Boer parted ways with the organization in February after two months of upheaval, fueled by complaints by members and board members about a lack of transparency and what many saw as the improper dismissal of members and board members.

For Bolson, community relationships are all about being “a good collaborator.”

With that in mind, she and Y leaders have reached out to organizations such as the United Way Blackhawk Region and the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville, located adjacent to the YMCA.

In January, the United Way barred the Y from access to United Way funding because of concerns about information the Y had provided in grant applications, a United Way official said at the time.

Bolson plans to continue her outreach as CEO.

“My goal is to continue that journey and be outward facing,” she said. “And transparency—that’s something I’ve heard a lot along the way. People want transparency; they want to know what’s going on at their Y.”

Bolson also plans to work several days a week out of the Parker YMCA in Milton.

“I look forward to being engaged in both communities,” she said.

Den Boer’s salary was $316,640, according to 2017 IRS filings.

Bolson declined to disclose her salary, but she said the local board of directors sought guidance from the national Y on how much someone with her experience who worked in a Y of this size should make.

The YMCA of Northern Rock County is considered a $2 million operation, she said., the employment website, reports that YMCA executive director salaries range from $61,000 to $111,111. However, the range is based on a small sample size. The executive director of the YMCA in Portland, Oregon, makes $201,000, according to the website. The director of the YMCA in the small city of Cadillac, Michigan, is advertised at $72,000 to $86,000.

Obituaries and death notices for July 2, 2019

Ronald K. Anderson

Donald M. Ellingson

Timothy T. Fett

Barbara J. Frost

James K. Hampton

Doris L. Marcks

Virginia M. Oakley

Marian H. Olin

Walter H. Ringhand

Kimberly J. Schnack

Why wealth gap has grown despite record-long economic growth


As it enters its 11th year, America’s economic expansion is now the longest on record—a streak that has shrunk unemployment, swelled household wealth, revived the housing market and helped fuel an explosive rise in the stock market.

Yet even after a full decade of uninterrupted economic growth, the richest Americans now hold a greater share of the nation’s wealth than they did before the Great Recession began in 2007. And income growth has been sluggish by historical standards, leaving many Americans feeling stuck in place.

Those trends help explain something unique about this expansion: It’s easily the least-celebrated economic recovery in decades.

As public discontent has grown, the issue has become one for political candidates to harness—beginning with Donald Trump in 2016. Now, some of the Democrats running to challenge Trump for the presidency have built their campaigns around proposals to tax wealth, raise minimum wages or ease the financial strain of medical care and higher education.

America’s financial disparities have widened in large part because the means by which people build wealth have become more exclusive since the Great Recession.

Fewer middle-class Americans own homes. Fewer are invested in the stock market. And home prices have risen far more in wealthier metro areas on the coasts than in more modestly priced cities and rural areas. The result is that affluent homeowners now sit on vast sums of home equity and capital gains, while tens of millions of ordinary households have been left mainly on the sidelines.

“The recovery has been very disappointing from the standpoint of inequality,” said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading expert on income and wealth distribution.

Household wealth—the value of homes, stock portfolios and bank accounts, minus mortgage and credit card debt and other loans—jumped 80% in the past decade. More than one-third of that gain—$16.2 trillion in riches— went to the wealthiest 1%, figures from the Federal Reserve show. Just 25% of it went to middle- to upper-middle class households. The bottom half of the population gained less than 2%.

Nearly 8 million Americans lost homes in the recession and its aftermath, and the sharp price gains since then have put ownership out of reach for many would-be buyers. For America’s middle class, the homeownership rate fell to about 60% in 2016 from roughly 70% in 2004, before the housing bubble, according to separate Fed data.

And the sharpest increases occurred in richer cities, like San Francisco, where prices have more than doubled in the past decade, or Phoenix, where they’ve surged 80%. By contrast, in lower-cost Charlotte, North Carolina, home prices have risen by only about a third. In Cleveland, by less than one-fifth.

Overall, in fact, middle-income households on average now have less home equity than they did before the recession, Fed data show.

The other major engine of household wealth—the stock market—hasn’t much benefited most people, either. The longest bull market in U.S. history, which surpassed its own 10-year mark in March, has shot equity prices up more than four-fold. Yet the proportion of middle-income households that own shares has actually declined.

The Fed calculates that about half of middle-income Americans owned shares in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, down from 56% in 2007. That includes people who hold stocks in retirement accounts.

The decline in stock market participation occurred mainly because more middle-income workers took contract work or other jobs that offered no retirement savings plans, the Fed concluded. In other cases, people who face major expenses for, say, health care or who have heavy student loan debt find it hard to save and invest much even if they do have access to retirement accounts.

“Many households find it challenging to make key middle-class investments because incomes at the middle are not keeping up with the rising costs of education and homeownership, and it is difficult to save enough,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, said in a speech in May.

Hannah Moore, now 37, has struggled to save since graduating from college in December 2007, the same month the Great Recession officially began. She has worked nearly continuously since then despite a couple of layoffs.

Moore, who studied interior design in Chicago at a for-profit college, began job hunting just as many architecture and design firms were downsizing. For several years, she did freelance design projects and worked in retail jobs, sometimes working 30 days without a day off. None provided health insurance or a retirement savings plan.

“I had many jobs, all at the same time,” she said. “It’s just not been the easiest of decades if you’re trying to jump-start a career.”

Her situation stabilized when she found full-time work in 2013. Three years later, she moved to Los Angeles, where she works for a design firm that contracts with luxury apartment developers that build rental housing marketed to high-tech employees. She loves the work, but she struggles with Los Angeles’ high costs.

Moore says she could afford a monthly mortgage payment. But she lacks the savings for a down payment. About half her income, she calculates, is eaten up by rent, health insurance and student loan payments of $850 a month.

As financial inequalities have widened over the past decade, racial disparities in wealth have worsened, too. The typical wealth for a white household is $171,000—nearly 10 times that for African Americans. That’s up from seven times before the housing bubble, and it primarily reflects sharp losses in housing wealth for blacks. The African American homeownership rate fell to a record low in the first three months of this year.

If wealth inequality has worsened because fewer Americans own homes and stocks, should the government try to reverse that trend? President George W. Bush spoke optimistically in the 2000s about an “Ownership Society.” The idea was that a larger proportion of Americans would achieve prosperity by buying homes and investing in the stock market through retirement savings plans.

Such discussion has faded since the housing bust. Many economists argue that what’s needed is simply higher incomes so more Americans can save and build wealth.

Zucman favors a higher minimum wage, cheaper access to college education and more family-friendly policies to enable more parents to work. He and his colleague Emmanuel Saez, also an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped formulate Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax on fortunes above $50 million to help pay for those proposals.

As the wealth gap has widened, income gains have remained anemic for Americans at all levels for the past decade. That is particularly true relative to the sizable pay gains that flowed to households during the robust expansions of the 1980s and 1990s.

“If you compare the economy now to where it was before the recession, the most important fact has been its relatively slow growth,” said Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University and a former top adviser to President Barack Obama.

Data compiled by Zucman, Saez and Thomas Piketty show that incomes grew much faster for the top 1% in the 1980s and the 1990s than over the past decade. Yet inequality has captured much more attention now than it did then.

In part, that might be because middle-class and poorer Americans haven’t enjoyed the fruits of this expansion compared with other recoveries. Incomes for middle-class Americans grew nearly twice as fast in the 1980s expansion and about 1.5 times faster in the 1990s than in the current recovery. For many people, inequality carries less sting when their own fortunes improve.

“The more people are struggling to make ends meet themselves, the more they may notice inequality,” said Elise Gould, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

Income growth has lagged partly because for most of the expansion, employers have had a surfeit of workers to choose among when filling jobs, leaving them little pressure to raise pay.

Not until 2016 did the unemployment rate fall below 5%. Average hourly pay finally began to pick up, with the lowest-income workers receiving the fastest average gains. Though this trend has helped narrow income inequality, vast disparities remain.