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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012

Sheriff Clarke: A Man Alone

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It sounds odd for Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a conservative African American, to describe himself as "a man alone" since he obviously has many enthusiastic fans in the media.

Clarke is welcomed with open arms and microphone by right-wing talk-show host Charlie Sykes whenever the sheriff wants to denounce black political leaders, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, judges or the district attorney, to the delight of Charlie's conservative white listeners.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carries almost daily stories on whatever Clarke thinks about people controlling his budget or successful criminal justice reforms he despises.

But, of course, reality never bears much relationship to right-wing rhetoric, white or black.

A prime example occurred at a black conservative forum in Washington, D.C., at which Clarke declared of Milwaukee: "It's a city that has forever been in the throes, if you will, the brace of liberal orthodoxy. And I've been a man alone—a man alone, trumpeting conservative values."

Is there anyone else, right or left, who recognizes cautious, slow-to-change Milwaukee as a seething hotbed of liberalism with only Sheriff Clarke as the lone conservative voice courageously struggling to hold back the roaring Bolshevik tide?

Or was that just Clarke nominating himself as the face of the national black conservative movement to communicate with inner-city residents, who, in Clarke's opinion, cannot be reached with either reason or logic?

Clarke's exact quote was: "Where is the face of the conservative movement that you can send down into the gallows of our urban centers, with the resources, being able to connect emotionally, not reason and logic?"

It's particularly disingenuous of Clarke to describe the black community as "the gallows of our urban centers" since Clarke is the primary law enforcement official fighting to maintain the over-incarceration of African Americans.

The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., has described Wisconsin's racial disparity in incarceration as the greatest in the nation. African Americans, only 6% of the state's population, make up about 50% of the prison population.

That's why responsible leaders in Milwaukee County, which sends the overwhelming majority of those blacks to prison, have begun working together to reduce racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Against the Evidence

Clarke is right. He is frequently a man alone, publicly opposing those efforts to reduce racial disparities and improve public safety with less expensive and more effective methods than mass incarceration.

A perfect example was Clarke's recent public trashing of a new program to realistically assess who can be safely released in the community while awaiting trial.

The program uses evidence-based risk factors to determine which defendants can be expected to return to court and live safely in the community until their trials.

Out of several hundred defendants recommended for release, the choice of one young man—charged with murder—may surprise many people. Even District Attorney John Chisholm's office, which strongly supports the new system, disagreed with the release by a court commissioner. It immediately went to court and within hours a judge had set bail.

But here's another surprise. Apparently, the original evidence-based assessment that the man could be trusted to return to court on his own was correct.

When the man received a phone call telling him the decision had been reversed, he voluntarily turned himself in to be incarcerated.

It was a good news story that the new system worked. But, of course, that's not how Clarke played it in the media. The Man Alone denounced "evidence-based decision-making" as a trick by liberals to let dangerous people out of jail, even though the case proved just the opposite.

The very next day, Clarke was back in the media spotlight, announcing he'd changed his own rules to return 61 accused offenders to jail after he had released them on electronic monitoring bracelets.

Many of those returned to jail had been convicted of drunken driving. That made Clarke's action particularly wasteful of tax dollars.

Drunken driving defendants are released on SCRAM bracelets that detect alcohol use through the skin and alert authorities to violations. The program has up to a 98% success rate.

The county pays $11.50 a day for each client on a bracelet. Clarke returning those accused offenders to jail increased the county's cost per defendant to about $140 a day. No wonder Clarke is in budget trouble.

Criminal justice professionals know community safety increases when offenders gain access to jobs.

Yet Clarke has eliminated job training at his facilities and decimated the Huber work-release program that once allowed more than 300 people to hold jobs and be locked up at night. Under Clarke, it's in the middling double digits.

With Clarke posturing in the media while real law enforcement leaders work together to improve criminal justice and increase public safety, may he forever remain a man alone.