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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013

The Perils of Reform

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There have always been good people working to improve our criminal justice system so that it saves and improves lives instead of damaging or destroying them.

It’s a tough challenge because people entangled with criminal justice are often already damaged human beings who don’t inspire a lot of public sympathy.

But Milwaukee County is fortunate right now to have public officials and key criminal justice leaders in place who are serious about improving the system.

Full disclosure: I know this because my wife, Kit Murphy McNally, after heading a nonprofit agency working for criminal justice reform, serves as the public representative on the executive committee of the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council.

Serving with her are Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers, State Public Defender Tom Reed, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and other key players.

The council has strongly supported efforts by Chisholm, the current chairman, to defer prosecution of nonviolent offenders, particularly those addicted to drugs or alcohol whose lives can be changed through treatment.

Policies toward treatment for addicts, depending upon one’s economic status, are brazenly unequal in our society.

For people of means, addiction is correctly treated as a health issue with access to treatment, counseling and rehabilitation services. For the poor, addiction is the leading nonviolent criminal offense responsible for the over-incarceration of people of color.

Anyone who’s ever known someone addicted to drugs or alcohol—and who hasn’t these days?—knows how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction. That’s why well-designed treatment programs don’t just send someone to therapy and hope for the best.

One of the most effective innovations under Chisholm and Kremers has been the creation of a drug treatment court.

It combines the hammer of possible incarceration with intense supervision by a judge and twice weekly drug tests, counseling and weekly court appearances to monitor participation and progress in treatment.

 

Treatment, Not Jail, Helps Addicts

But no matter how many thousands of distraught families are helped when loved ones successfully overcome addiction, political support for treatment programs can be imperiled by a single, sensationalized failure.

Cassandra Lutz, a young woman in her 20s who died of a heroin overdose six months ago, wasn’t part of a court-ordered drug treatment program. But Jeremiah Schroeder, the man accused of supplying her with the heroin, was.

Hearts can only go out to any family that has experienced the anguish of watching drugs slowly destroy their child’s life. The anger they feel about her death is understandable.

But somehow the family’s anger has been directed toward the drug treatment Schroeder was receiving under court supervision.

The way Lutz’s family looks at it—and the media are only too happy to publicize—if Schroeder had been incarcerated on an earlier drug charge instead of being offered drug treatment, he wouldn’t have been around to supply the girl with the drug prosecutors say killed her.

Of course, when addicts are looking for drugs, it’s not difficult to find someone else to provide them. But there’s no reason to argue with a grieving family.

The important thing is not to let anyone exploit a tenuously connected tragedy to derail an extremely valuable community program that is making a positive difference in the lives of people just like Lutz and Schroeder.

Schroeder’s history shows the program worked as it was supposed to. Last November, Schroeder pleaded guilty to drug charges and began an 18-month deferred prosecution program under intense judicial supervision.

Early in the program, Schroeder missed appointments and failed drug tests. He was punished with jail twice, including the entire month of January. Since Feb. 1, he made all his court appearances and counseling sessions and passed 10 consecutive drug tests.

In fact, Schroeder passed a drug test on March 6 before meeting up with Lutz at a concert that night. It was at a party afterward with Schroeder and others Lutz used the heroin that killed her.

Schroeder didn’t get away with anything. His deferred prosecution was revoked and he’s already serving 1½ years in prison on his original drug charge. Now he’s also been charged with reckless homicide in Lutz’s death, which carries a maximum sentence of 50 years.

We already know incarceration does little to improve the lives of drug addicts. It’s easier to get drugs in prison than drug treatment.

Offenders emerge from prison with more problems than they had before, including a prison record that often prevents them from getting legitimate employment or safe housing.

It’s important to stand behind public officials and leaders with the political courage to create programs that have a chance of improving lives in our community.

Closely monitored drug treatment under court supervision continues to save lives. It might even have saved Lutz’s life if she’d been fortunate enough to be part of it.

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