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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008

A Shot of Political Courage

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Chisholm is the first new district attorney to be elected in Milwaukee County since 1968. That was the year I started as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal. I still remember the TV ads from the campaign between E. Michael McCann and defense attorney Gerry Boyle.

The ads on both sides featured loudly slamming cell doors. That clanging sound and those images of sliding steel doors became standard campaign clich?for anyone running for district attorney or even the more judicious position of judge over the next four decades.

That’s why it was surprising when Chisholm cited as his greatest accomplishment not how many lawbreakers he had incarcerated, but a large number he had chosen not to incarcerate.

Chisholm was proud of more than 600 cases that had been diverted from prosecution, allowing offenders to be referred to drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and other alternatives that could save their lives instead of simply fast-tracking them into prison.

Treatment that can change lives costs as little as $10,000, Chisholm said. The total cost of prosecution, court expenses and incarceration swells to as much as $250,000 while doing little to reduce crime by dealing with its causes.

The far easier path is to talk tough about crime and call for more incarceration, even when it wastes money and reduces public safety by returning offenders to the community more dangerous than before.

Chisholm said something startling about diversion programs that demonstrates the depth of his commitment. “Is there going to be an individual I divert or put into a treatment program who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet. Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach, though.”

Chisholm expressed the threat that hangs over every intelligent program that tries to actually change criminal behavior by teaching people how to live and work in the community. He was announcing ahead of time that he’s ready to face the political firestorm the media would inevitably create.

Every professional who operates an alternative to incarceration lives in fear of inflammatory media coverage if a participant in their program commits a heinous crime. One such incident can immediately shut down a program that has saved thousands of lives.

The right-wing talk shows crank up their hate machines and demand that we forgo namby-pamby “treatment” for criminal behavior and instead cast offenders into the deepest and darkest dungeons.

The irony, of course, is that the criminal justice approach that fails repeatedly is prison itself. We read all the time about people who were formerly incarcerated who commit heinous crimes.

Yet, not once have those talk shows campaigned to close down the prisons. They do not even call for improving prisons to make them work better by adding more drug and alcohol treatment or job training programs to prepare people to succeed on the outside.

All they want are worse prisons to continue doing the terrible job prisons do by releasing people back into the community angrier and more violent with more barriers to legitimate employment.

Ready to Make a Stand

Over the years, most politicians who have experimented successfully with alternatives to incarceration run for cover when even a single case stirs controversy.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, couldn’t scamper for political cover fast enough when the first George Bush began running racist TV ads about a murder committed by Willie Horton on a weekend furlough from prison.

Chisholm realizes that people in treatment or alternative programs can commit horrible crimes, just as people returning from prison can. But he’s prepared to defend treatment instead of prison for all the good it does.

Under the so-called Common Ground initiative, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is about to embark on an alternative program of his own.

The Milwaukee Police Department has been gathering information on lower-level criminal participants. Rather than using that evidence to put people behind bars for the short term, the city intends to give “salvageable” offenders the option of entering treatment programs or job training that could divert them from crime permanently.

On my radio show, I asked the mayor if, like the district attorney, he would be willing to take the heat and continue that Common Ground approach even if a participant committed murder. He said he would, noting that politicians are attacked on crime no matter what they do, so they might as well try to do the right thing.

Maybe political courage on criminal justice is contagious.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepherd-express.com