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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

How Tough on Crime Should a Judge Be?

Milwaukee County Circuit Court candidates explain how they balance justice and mercy

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The three candidates vying for Branch 18 of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court faced off last Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Milwaukee Bar Association. The seat, currently held by former Democratic legislator Pedro Colón, is being challenged in the Feb. 15 primary by Roy Korte, the director of the criminal litigation, antitrust and consumer protection unit of the state Department of Justice; and attorney and Glendale Municipal Court Judge Christopher Lipscomb. The two candidates with the most votes will appear on the April 5 general election ballot.

The candidates were asked how they balance retribution and rehabilitation when deciding criminal cases. Here are their answers

Colón: "I can tell you in the case of juvenile dispositions it is absolutely [about] how to balance safety with the concerns of those individual children who nevertheless commit very serious crimes. It is the most difficult part of the job. I think I bring to that the ability to understand, that I represented a district where crime has been high. I've been to the church halls after awful things have occurred to family members and I have dealt with that. I do understand that we need safety. And I do understand that it is required to sentence people. And sentencing is—a friend of mine said in an interview [he was asked], ‘What would you offer a [continuing legal education] on?’ And he said, ‘Well, on sentencing, because it is an often overlooked part of the practice, but it's really a very important part of the practice.’ That is certainly true.

"I know this community. I know the neighborhoods. I know the people. I know the economic circumstances in which the crimes come to court. I also know the devastation that that causes the people who are the victims of crimes. What you do is, within the legal framework, you try to establish some modicum of—you can't be retributive. You have to make sure the person engages in a way in which we have a safe community. That doesn't necessarily mean the longest sentence. It could mean the longest sentence. But, ultimately, how do we create a community that heals from that particular incident?"

Korte:
"Like many things, it's based on what you've done and your experiences over your career. Yes, the public is concerned about public safety and crime, and they should be. It is an important part of the job. It isn't the only part. There's a lot, obviously, that goes into being a judge beyond criminal cases, but it is a part of the system that we devote a lot of resources to. So it is important to deal with.

"But as a prosecutor, it's not just as if I'm out for blood, I'm out to convict people. I'm out to do justice. And that is one thing that as a prosecutor that we are taught from the beginning, and it is what I teach new prosecutors: You are a minister of justice. It is more than just convicting people. I get to meet the defendants. I get to know them to a certain extent. And I am mindful of individual differences and their own issues and problems. I'm married to a defense attorney. We've had interesting conversations in our lives and in our house about cases and defendants and those types of issues. Am I sensitive to it? You bet I am. But I am also concerned about personal responsibility. That's very important. And accountability by any defendant. So I do use my best judgment based on my experience."

Lipscomb:
"I think I understand this better than my two opponents, maybe on a more personal level. I've asked that judges put people in jail. I've had clients be put into jail. I'm the only one up here who has actually ordered people to go to jail. I think it's important. People have to be held responsible for their activities and actions. On the other hand, I do know that almost everybody who goes to jail and to prison is coming out someday. So you can't just stick them in there and forget about what's going to happen. They are coming out. I do believe that jail and prison is not a reformative place for most people unless they're getting some help and services while they're there.

"I also have a juvenile component to my cases in municipal court. I spend lots of time—hours and hours—dealing with my juvenile calendar because I know, as I tell the kids, ‘You, I might be able to do something with. I might help change your behavior. Somebody my age, I'm pretty much what I'm going to be. I'm not going to be changed that much except for with some very extreme measures.’

“So I work with kids, encouraging them to do certain things with the idea that if you don't, then here are the penalties that are coming at you. I always remind them, ‘Here are the penalties. It's your responsibility. It's not your parents’. You have to take care of these things.’ That's the kind of thing I think a judge needs to be aware of and cognizant of."
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