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Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

The Sheriff Vs. Public Safety

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I’ll never forget the night in October 1998, when my wife Kit and other community organizers successfully opened a county Day Reporting Center (DRC) to try to reduce recidivism among criminal offenders by providing a holistic program of drug treatment, education, job training, behavior change and community service.

That’s because it also turned out to be the most terrifying night Kit and I experienced in our lives.

It was the beginning of a highly successful county program, one that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is now trying to scuttle even though it has been salvaging lives and increasing public safety for more than 10 years at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

The DRC opening was a triumphal celebration for Kit, as executive director of the Benedict Center, and other organizers including Paige Styler and Kelli Thompson from the state Public Defenders Office, who for months transported busloads of Milwaukee judges and other county officials to Chicago to witness firsthand the success of Cook County’s Day Reporting Center.

Still flushed with exuberance over the grand opening attended by then-Congressman Tom Barrett and other government leaders, we pulled into our garage.

Three young men in ski masks immediately came out of the dark as we got out of the car. The one on the passenger side put a gun to Kit’s head.

They demanded money and the keys to the car. I complied, but not fast enough for the one with the gun, who shouted that if I didn’t hurry up, my wife would die. They seemed scared themselves. Anything could have happened.

It was over quickly. They backed out of the garage, driving badly, stalling the car several times. But they were gone. After holding each other, we immediately called the police.

In less than an hour, our car was recovered, abandoned in the middle of the street just a few blocks away. But the memory of what happened in those moments of terror will never leave us.

Neither will our commitment to change failed criminal justice policies that provide only harsh punishment and often return offenders to the community more dangerous than they were before.

Kit and the Benedict Center work every day to reform criminal justice and reduce recidivism by changing the lives of offenders. Now, unfortunately, she and other knowledgeable advocates find themselves fighting to save one of the county’s most successful programs.

Over the years, the Day Reporting Center, now officially named the Community Justice Resource Center, has been strongly supported by two county executives, including politically conservative Scott Walker, the County Board, two district attorneys, corporate leaders from the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the judges who sentence offenders most likely to benefit to the DRC.

But since Sheriff Clarke took control of the House of Correction and the county’s criminal justice programs six months ago, he has been preventing offenders from participating in the DRC as well as the state’s Huber Law work release program, which has been operating successfully for nearly 100 years.

No one knows for sure what Clarke’s real objection is to connecting offenders to jobs and providing positive change in their lives. His public pronouncements don’t make much sense.

Clarke had assistants compile distorted statistics at one point intended to show DRC participants were a threat to public safety.

They included arrest records of anyone who participated in the program, even if the arrests led to no charges or convictions or were for minor offenses.

Most recently, Clarke claimed “samples” of those who completed the program showed that 21% were convicted of new offenses in 2008 and 18% in 2007. Clarke did not say how his samples were selected or how many of the offenses were serious.

Kit, quoted in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on Clarke’s attack, successfully refuted Clarke’s analysis, noting the figures dramatically demonstrated the success of the DRC. Studies show 60% or more of offenders released into the community without such programs commit new crimes.

Perhaps Clarke simply doesn’t understand his new role as head of county corrections programs. Clarke spent his entire career in the Milwaukee Police Department before being appointed sheriff by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.

Clarke comes off as an extremely proud man who does not admit to any gaps in his own knowledge. Running a successful corrections program is far different from making arrests as a street cop.

Shutting down successful rehabilitation programs may play to right-wing radio, but it doesn’t improve public safety.

Permanently reclaiming the lives of offenders through drug treatment, education, job training and behavior change creates safer communities better than expensive incarceration, which mostly creates harder-to-employ, hardened cons.

Most important, salvaging lives means fewer people experiencing the terror Kit and I did returning home on an October night that should have been most memorable for launching a successful county program that has increased public safety ever since.

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