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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Issue of the Week: Deferred Prosecutions—The ‘Journal Sentinel’ Gets It Wrong Again

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Is Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm letting drug dealers, thieves and pedophiles off the hook?

Well, that’s what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’sfront-page article on Sunday would like you to believe.

But the reality is much different than the JS’s view of the world.

The Milwaukee County district attorney’s deferred prosecution program holds nonviolent offenders accountable in a much praised, efficient manner. Note that drunken drivers, offenders who had been convicted of a felony sex offense and offenders with a criminal history of firearm offenses are not eligible for the program.

Here’s how it works. An offender is screened to see if he or she is eligible using evidence-based criteria. Then the offender pleads guilty to a criminal charge and enters into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement that includes some conditions—he or she is ordered to pay restitution, perform community service, or go to drug treatment or anger management courses, for example. Offenders are rigorously monitored, usually by Justice 2000, a private nonprofit organization in Milwaukee. After the offenders complete the conditions of their agreement, they go back to court. Sometimes the charges are dismissed, sometimes they’re reduced.

But if an offender doesn’t complete the terms of his or her agreement, the original guilty plea stands. About 70% of the offenders in the program complete their agreement successfully; about 30% don’t and the conviction remains on their record. Oftentimes, the offender is incarcerated.

The upside is that offenders get treatment for their problems without clogging up the heavily burdened court system. In fact, the program is so successful that the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs has recommended that it be expanded because it saves taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year, increases employment and reduces jail overcrowding. And that’s the reality that the Journal Sentinel failed to include in its reporting.

Hero of the Week

Claudia Romero

Taking the selfless spirit of the holidays to heart, MATC nursing student Claudia Romero enlisted friends, co-workers and neighbors to help raise money for gifts for children in foster or kinship care. Through these efforts, Romero hopes to be able to purchase and distribute nearly 300 gifts to area children.

Romero is one of many individuals, organizations and businesses involved with Kids Matter Inc., which advocates for children in the foster care system. To learn about ways to get involved, visit www.kidsmatterinc.org.

Jerks of the Week

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC)

Why would a pro-business chamber of commerce sit on the sidelines when the federal government offered to invest $810 million in the region and spur economic development throughout the Midwest? It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what the MMAC did during the debate over high-speed rail. Although the group and its regional offshoot, the Milwaukee 7, helped to woo the Spanish train-maker Talgo to the city, in anticipation of the high-speed rail line, MMAC did nothing to persuade its ally, Gov.-elect Scott Walker, to accept the federal rail funds, nor did it try to convince Talgo to remain in the city. (In contrast, the business community in Madison enthusiastically supported the high-speed rail project.) Now both high-speed rail and Talgo are history. Even a Talgo spokeswoman is baffled by MMAC’s passivity, saying that even if the state had to kick in $7.5 million a year to operate the line it would be worth it to leverage the $810 million and increased business development. “Talgo was encouraged by the business community to move to Wisconsin, and they were silent about the very same facts that made this project the only one in the nation that qualified to be fully funded by the federal government,” a spokeswoman said.

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