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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Moving Forward Together

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The Milwaukee County Board has been trashed so much lately in the Legislature that someone should recognize the enormous good it just accomplished when it worked with the county executive to improve community justice and safety.

The successful removal of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s mean-spirited control of the House of Correction could help reduce crime and improve public safety by expanding correctional programs to return ex-offenders to the community better than they went in, instead of worse.

It took a lot of political courage. Clarke fought kicking and screaming all the way with strong support from his right-wing radio cheerleaders and an easily manipulated local media that over-publicizes Clarke’s every utterance, no matter how absurd.

In a failed lawsuit he filed against the county, Clarke argued that he had the power under the state constitution to magically proclaim the county’s correctional facility to be a jail controlled only by the sheriff without any oversight from county government.

Anyone who’d taken a beginning law course could see through that one. Circuit Judge Paul Van Grunsven ruled against Clarke, noting the House had been a correctional facility ever since it was created in 1865. Even the sheriff seemed to agree with that sentiment, since he renamed it County Correctional Facility-South after County Executive Scott Walker and the county board gave him control in 2009.

It’s true that Clarke did everything he could to destroy any programs at the House that could correct the behavior of incarcerated individuals and reduce recidivism.

That included Clarke’s elimination of most drug and alcohol treatment, which would have addressed the immediate needs of the majority of those in the facility.

Clarke also discontinued all job-training programs, probably the most pro-crime, anti-community step he could take. People returning to poor communities with criminal records and no job skills have very few legitimate ways to survive.

If those desperate folks return to illegitimate means, Clarke cites it as proof that it’s a waste of money to try to change the life of anyone who is ever arrested.

The statistics show just the opposite. Those who complete treatment and education programs reduce harm to the community and save taxpayers millions through lower crime rates.

But to Clarke, they’re just bad people who deserve bad treatment. Corrections professionals know that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Punishing Inmates, Not Rehabilitating Them

Not only has Clarke decimated every positive program to improve anyone’s life, but he’s administered his own forms of gratuitous cruelty. Instead of teaching civilized behavior, his tactics are more likely to increase the destructive anger of anyone unfortunate enough to be housed in his facility.  

How about using disgusting food as punishment? The sheriff’s vile Nutraloaf even turned meals into a form of degrading abuse.

Clarke also loved to use snarling dogs straining at their leashes to intimidate prisoners in their cells.

With a recent study documenting Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for African American males as the highest in the country, more than twice the national average, the sheriff has no qualms about terrifying human beings with vicious dogs just like those racist Southern sheriffs of the Jim Crow era.

It took a united county board and County Executive Chris Abele—along with a court order—to wrest the House away from Clarke’s outdated, damaging methods.

The new superintendent, Michael Hafemann, instantly moved House management into the 21st century from Clarke’s plunge backwards into 19th-century inhumanity.

Just hours after Clarke took his dogs and turned over control, Hafemann had eliminated the nauseating Nutraloaf and began planning to expand access to drug and alcohol treatment, education, job training and even jobs.

Clarke had revoked work release privileges for most of those sentenced under Wisconsin’s Huber Law, passed in 1913 to allow low-level offenders to keep their jobs in the community to support their families.

Clarke also intentionally ignored judicial sentences that allowed the safe release of non-violent offenders in the community with electronic monitoring.

Electronic monitoring programs, which can have a 98% success rate in preventing any violations in the community, cost only about a tenth of incarcerating someone under Clarke’s budget-busting, over-incarceration policies.

Clarke’s conservative political supporters should stop encouraging such a wasteful government program.

One reason to retain both a strong county executive and a representative county board is that working together they can institute evidence-based, best-government practices even when some demagogue is hell bent on stirring up community opposition.

On the other hand, if such an unscrupulous demagogue were ever elected county executive without any checks and balances from a strong county board, heaven help us all.

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