Submitted by Sheriff David Clarke
In 2009, a state law was signed that allowed dangerous career criminals to be released from prison well before they completed their sentences. This policy was enacted without much public debate, and without consideration of its impact on law-abiding people. It was presented not as prison reform, which Wisconsin desperately needs, but purely as a cost saving initiative.
I said at the time that lawmakers who voted for this were playing Russian roulette with the safety and security of Milwaukee residents, mainly those who live in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. This policy would disproportionately impact minority seniors, women and children. They are the most victimized by violence and disorder in our central city, where the majority of these criminal perpetrators will return. Minorities pay the highest price in the form of fear, injury, anxiety and emotional trauma. For instance, homicide is a leading cause of death for Black men under 25.
The landscape changed on July 19, 2011, when the early release law was repealed by the legislature and signed by the governor. As a law enforcement executive I am relieved by this action. Securing the personal safety of its citizens is the primary purpose of government. In a growing number of Milwaukee neighborhoods, the quality of life people deserve is non-existent. These neighborhoods are stressed and under siege from gang activity, drug wars, gun violence, burglary, arson, and auto theft. Many people feel like prisoners in their own homes, living in fear of doing simple things like sitting on the porch, going for a walk or letting their children play outside even during the day. Add high unemployment, failing schools, inadequate parenting, neglected children, domestic violence, clueless elected officials, a police department lacking the resources needed to effectively respond, and then throw in returning prison inmates, and it only compounds a neighborhood in crisis.
I find social engineering experiments, such as an early release policy, to be morally cruel. Whether we like it or not, tough sentencing is an effective crime control strategy. Every day a criminal spends behind bars is another day that he cannot victimize another human being.
During discussions on topics such as early release, politics take over. Distorted information is spewed and unsubstantiated rhetoric is forwarded as fact, by soft-on-crime liberals, academic elites and criminal advocates. One of the biggest myths is that our prisons are overpopulated with non-violent offenders or drug users. Data and research show otherwise. Research on prison populations shows that the overwhelming majority in state prisons have been sentenced for a violent felony. The research also shows that inmates locked up for drug offenses are mainly dealers who are members of notorious street gangs.
A report from the Wisconsin Public Policy Research Institute titled, “Who really goes to prison in Wisconsin?” revealed that 94 percent of Wisconsin prison inmates are locked up for a violent felony or have an arrest for a violent felony in their criminal history. They are habitual offenders. This same research indicated that 90 percent, (yes, 90 percent) of the inmates who were released from prison ended up being rearrested. Other research shows that states with lenient sentencing and corrections policies have higher rates of recidivism.
Another myth is that prison inmates should be given “second chances.” We do not send people to prison for first-time offenses such as misdemeanors and not paying fines. The truth is that our prisons are filled with people who have chosen criminal behavior as a lifestyle and a career, and who have been given repeated chances to reform. Recidivists go through every program available to assist them, but their criminal behavior is so ingrained that society cannot accept their abhorrent, anti-social behavior and must separate them from law-abiding people.
We have to rid ourselves of the great American fairytale that every criminal can be rehabilitated and be more realistic about how we spend our limited resources. Treatment and diversion programs have to be selectively applied. We cannot save criminals from themselves; only the sheer will of the individual can.
Here is what I propose as a remedy. There is an African proverb that says the ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people. Let’s start by truly holding parents accountable for being fully engaged in the raising of their children, including their education, and tie it to receiving government support. Raising children who attend school regularly and refrain from criminal activity should be a requirement for any government assistance. Churches should promote marriage because intact families can share duties, make child rearing less stressful and instill a sense of morality. More emphasis needs to be placed in the home on the value of an education and shared reading time as a family activity. The key to reducing the prison population is preventing lifestyle criminal behavior. Early release? How about early intervention?