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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

District Attorney Chisholm Fights for Successful Programs

Community prosecutors and domestic violence unit will see cuts

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Wisconsin has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and it is costing taxpayers a fortune. For the majority of victimless crimes, such as drug possession, there are ways other than prison to deal with the perpetrator that are better for society as a whole and for the perpetrator as an individual. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is proud of the work being done through several innovative programs that not only save money, but also do more to prevent recidivism. Unfortunately, many of the most innovative programs are funded by the federal government, which is cutting back.

And the state of Wisconsin, facing a $5.4 billion deficit by 2011, probably won’t jump in to cover the tab. “Things look bleak,” Chisholm said last week.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office relies on funding from three main sources. The state pays the salaries and benefits for its attorneys. The county pays for its support staff. And the federal government pays for any additional programs, including the domestic violence unit, community prosecutors, specialty drug prosecutors, and children’s court programs such as helping children in need of protective services.

Milwaukee County’s law enforcement programs are heavily dependent on federal funding. In fact, Chisholm said that of the 42 federally funded positions in Wisconsin, 40 are in Milwaukee County. But these programs are in jeopardy, and have been since the Bush administration began making serious cuts in 2007 that have not been restored by Congress.

Chisholm is predicting that he’ll lose at least 10 members of his office next year because of federal budget cuts.

Chisholm said he would try to find state funding for these programs, despite the state’s budget hole. State agencies have been asked to make cuts of 10% or more in the coming budget cycle. Chisholm said he’s attempting to fund these positions with general-purpose funds from the state.

“I’ve been pushing [for more funds] since the day I walked into the office,” Chisholm said. “I have had to. I have had to respectfully remind people of my concerns about how tenuous federal funding is and warn them that if you lose that federal funding, that sets off a ripple effect that ends up landing on the state’s lap anyway.”

Cutbacks Could Lead to Bigger Criminal Justice Troubles

Take the Byrne grant, for example, which funds law enforcement and district attorney programs through yearly authorizations. It’s been cut from $520 million to $170 million, and, for the first time, Congress has not restored those funds.

“That’s going to show up as the loss of five positions in 2009 from my community prosecutors and drug prosecution teams,” Chisholm said. The loss of funding for community prosecutors “will kill my soul because I believe that program is incredibly effective,” Chisholm said.

Since becoming district attorney in early 2007, Chisholm has restructured the office around community-based prosecutors, who team with police in districts around the city to screen people who come into contact with law enforcement. Those who commit serious violations are referred for prosecution, while others are recommended for drug or alcohol treatment or other programs.

“My fear is that in conjunction with cutbacks in treatment resources that we will become more reactive and go back to a more reactive model where we simply charge cases and let the court system sort it out,” Chisholm said of a system that also ends up costing more money. “I don’t want that to happen.”

He said that the federal grant for the domestic violence unit will end in April 2009, which would mean a loss of five positions. Despite the fact that Vice President-elect Joe Biden authored the Violence Against Women Act that created this program, Chisholm predicted that the new administration would focus on other priorities and allow the domestic violence earmark to dry up for now, unless Congress acts to restore it.

Chisholm said the one bright spot has been the county’s restoration of funding for the witness protection program, which has lapsed in recent years. He said a $50,000 grant from the state will keep the program going in the interim.

Chisholm noted that while the overall funding for law enforcement isn’t positive, he would do the best with the funds he does have. “No matter what, it’s our responsibility to provide effective justice to the community and we’ll do that,” Chisholm said. “I can’t escape that responsibility, but I need some resources to do that effectively.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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