Given how complex the reasons are for Wisconsin’s high rate of black male incarceration, there’s no single solution. Many experts say several courses of action must occur simultaneously.
Treatment Instead of Incarceration
Many people in prison are there because of mental health and/or substance abuse problems, which are at the root of their criminal behavior. While incarcerated, they’re unlikely to get the help they need. Many experts say more training is needed for prison staff who work with the mentally ill, so inmates don’t end up in seclusion. Others call for more offenders to be entered into alcohol or drug addiction (AODA) treatment programs while in prison. Many are on waiting lists.
Another possible solution is more funding for Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD). The programs provide services, paid with state, county or federal grand money, for people with mental health needs and substance abuse issues. For instance, drug treatment courts allow suspects in certain drug-related crimes to obtain substance abuse treatment and other help, in turning around their lives. If they complete the program, the charges against them are dismissed. While Wisconsin’s funding for TAD went up 150 percent in the current budget, many experts say that’s not enough.
“It’s a multifaceted approach that we have to take, and one way is by making sure that there are programs like treatment and diversion programs in the community and that they are well funded,” says State Sen. Nikiya Harris (D-Milwaukee), “so that people who are nonviolent offenders, who may have an addiction, can get the treatment that they deserve and need. We really have an issue where we have to resolve it quickly, so that we can put families back together.”
Community Corrections for Nonviolent Offenders
There are thousands of nonviolent offenders who are sent to prison, even though they might not present a threat to the community. When they get out, experts say, many have become hardened criminals, who do pose a threat — and are likely to become career criminals.
Possible solutions include more efforts to keep nonviolent offenders in the community, so they can maintain jobs, as well as contacts with family members and support networks. Thirty-eight states have Community Corrections acts, which are designed to divert people to community-based corrections programming. Some say community corrections programs would be particularly beneficial for 17-year-old nonviolent first-time offenders, who otherwise may get sent to adult prison.
Another option is deferred prosecution or diversion programs for nonviolent offenders who have mental health or alcohol and drug issues (see above).
“For those inmates that you talk to that are going to be out in a week or month or a few years, the next question is: what are the realities that they’re going to exceed expectation and actually be able to sustain being free (after) their incarceration?,” says State Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield). “And those that we’re able to talk to really follow two paths. Those that say: ‘I’m going to leave with the shirt on my back and a few quarters to make a few phone calls, and I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that it works,’ and those that say ‘I have a plan, because I’ve been able to re-engage with either family or an organization that is going to come alongside me, support me, that will actually give me a fighting chance.’”
More Jobs and Education
The loss of Milwaukee’s manufacturing base, which began several decades ago, has contributed to the downward spiral in central city neighborhoods. Many people have a tough time escaping the spiral, because there are few job opportunities today.
A targeted approach to bring manufacturing jobs back to the central city could address this issue. Additionally, better access to driver’s licenses could help some men go to work, including to jobs outside the city center. Possible solutions include: offering free driver’s education in the central city; programs to help reinstate driver’s licenses; employing less aggressive driver’s license suspension and revocation for low-income drivers who fail to pay fines; and using less aggressive police patrols and ticketing in low income neighborhoods.
Likewise, more funding for K-12 and college education, as well as job training and recruitment, could provide opportunities for young inner city men.
“We need society at large to help out in mentoring,” says Minister William Harrell, co-founder of Table of the Saints prison ministry. “I mean, just looking at these kids and seeing what they’re going through, ‘Oh, look at them — they’re going in the wrong direction.’ Well, go and talk to those children. A word of wisdom, man, goes a long way. Talk to these babies.”
Many are calling for more job training and education in prisons. Currently, only a small portion of inmates are able to take advantage of limited programming. Others say the state needs more transitional jobs for people just getting out of prison, to help them maintain employment and lower their risk of recidivism. Some urge potential employers not to stigmatize former inmates. One suggestion is to reduce the easy, free access to criminal records on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website (CCAP).
“From the business community, there has to be a sense of forgiveness and a sense of working with the ex-offender,” says Andre Brown, case manager for Project RETURN. “There can’t be an attitude of: ‘We have to keep the ex-offender at bay, because of the stigma.’ The business community has to include the ex-offender in its population, and society as a whole has to provide some form of forgiveness.”
Change Current Sentencing Practices
Under current law, sentences can be very long, and some experts say the more time someone is locked up, the more likely it is that he’ll become a hardened criminal. Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing law doesn’t give inmates an incentive to earn time off for good behavior or by completing a counseling program. Critics say the law prevents judges from doing their job, which is to use their knowledge and discretion to hand down an appropriate sentence.
Many advocates call for an end to Truth in Sentencing, or to keep it, but adjust sentences based on crimes – something that was supposed to happen when the law took effect, but didn’t. They also call for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Others say certain drug offenses should have lower sentences, and more drug courts should be set up with a focus on treatment over incarceration.
Change the Parole System
Former inmates may end up having their parole revoked for nonviolent, minor or technical offenses (such as breaking curfew, drinking or missing a meeting with a parole officer). The state ends up sending them back to prison in big numbers, instead of giving them another chance in the community. Critics add that the state can hold people for weeks, while deciding whether to proceed with a revocation hearing, causing some people to lose their jobs. A solution to this issue could be to divert technical violators to community supervision, so they can continue working.
Another suggestion is to encourage parole officers to take a “social work” perspective, versus a “criminal justice” approach to handling cases. However, caseloads are high, and critics of the system say parole officers cannot spend quality time with former inmates. Those who want to change the system are calling for more funding and training for parole officers.
Improve Police-Community Relations
Many of the City of Milwaukee’s police patrols are in poor, mainly black neighborhoods. Some critics of the police department say the strategy gives the perception that police are out to “get” as many men there, as possible. Some say police treat all the men they encounter like criminals, and give numerous tickets in one traffic stop. As a result, some people might not trust police, and as a result, might not report all criminal activity, because they view doing so as snitching.
The police say they’re simply putting the force where there’s a lot of crime. According to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, the six zip codes with the highest number of incarcerated residents represent only 26 percent of the city’s population; however, those neighborhoods include 44 percent of the city’s crime victims. Flynn says the six zip codes result in 63 percent of the city’s homicide victims, 67 percent of non-fatal shooting victims, 55 percent of aggravated assault victims and 53 percent of robbery victims.
“From the point of view of the police department, the single thing we need to do to reduce the levels of incarceration is to reduce the levels of victimization in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Chief Edward Flynn says.
Some observers say police officers should do more to get to know residents and encourage the public to trust them. Others say police could use more discretion in ticketing practices, such as not giving a driver one ticket for each tinted window.
For more possible solutions, view the stories below:
- Community Leaders Hope Job Training in Prison Will Bring Down The Numbers
- Milwaukee Men Get Skilled on Fatherhood
- Advocates: 3 Ways to Reduce Wisconsin’s $1.2 Billion Corrections Budget
- Milwaukee County’s Drug Treatment Court Keeps Some Men Out of Prison
- Parents Behind Bars Help Fund Scholarships for Inmates’ Kids
- Efforts to Instill Hope in Children of Incarcerated Men
- Passion and Perseverance Can Help Overcome Poverty Mindset
- Milwaukee Urban Farmer Hopes to Train Ex-Convicts, Build Entrepreneurial Skills
- Black Men in Prison: What We’ve Learned So Far
- Bi-Partisan Call in Wisconsin to Revisit ‘Truth in Sentencing’, Amid Swelling Prison Population
- Milwaukee Moms Share Stories of Sons Lost to Gun Violence, Prison System