Let’s be Tough on Criminals and Smart on Crime

“I’m an alcoholic,” the man told a large audience in Eau Claire. “I was sentenced to 6 years in prison for my fifth drunk driving offense.” He served his time but relapsed after prison.

The construction worker continued his story, “I got into the Chippewa Valley Veterans Court. I’m sober. I’m a home-owner and I have a well-paying job.”

“Thirty years ago Wisconsin was tough on crime,” he said. “Wisconsin is now tough on criminals, but smart on crime.”

The Eau Claire man was a graduate of one of our local “problem solving” courts.

Western Wisconsin is a state leader in creating alternative courts. These courts take a different approach to drug addicts, alcoholics and other nonviolent criminals. Using an evidence-based, comprehensive, carrot and stick methods, judges and court officials found success where traditional incarceration failed.

Problem solving courts are only an option for individuals who are not a danger to the health and well-being of our society.

The California-based Human Impact Partners released a lengthy report on Wisconsin’s alternative courts. The study was a collaborative work with WISDOM, a statewide faith-based organization.

Local chapters across the state, including AMOS and JONAH, are working to increase Wisconsin’s investment in Treatment Alternative and Diversion (TAD) court programs. The program began with funding I supported in the 2007-09 state budget.

That investment in local problem solving courts produced results that received high marks by researchers.

For example, while almost half of offenders in Wisconsin end up back in prison, in La Crosse County only 4% of their OWI court graduates were rearrested. La Crosse also experienced a 47% drop in third time drunk driving arrests.

Many people with substance abuse problems have underlying mental health problems. The Eau Claire Mental Health Court focus on controlling mental illness as an approach to reduce criminal behavior. The Human Impact Partners evaluation reported Eau Claire addicts had “marked improvement” in symptom control, which led to sustained sobriety.

The state Department of Corrections estimates that 70% of prisoners have substance abuse addictions. The Human Impact Partners study reported that drug and alcohol use accounted for 80% of prison population growth since 1996. With a total budget of over $ 2.2 billion state dollars, lawmakers are looking for ways to trim those costs.

Almost half of prison inmates come from and return to Milwaukee County. But the good news is Milwaukee’s crime rate decreased by 23% since 2007 when Milwaukee’s TAD program went into effect. Community policing, inmate screening and diversion programs like TAD can be credited.

The effects of incarceration go far beyond the prisoners who struggle with higher unemployment, depressed wages, and high risk of suicide, drug use and homelessness.

Nearly half of Wisconsin’s prisoners are parents. Almost 7% of all African American children have a parent in prison. Families left behind are more likely to experience hardship and need public assistance.

Almost 8 out of 10 women in prison provided most of the care for their children. One study showed 70% of young children with a mother in prison experienced emotional or psychological problems.

Children of inmates have double the risk of depression, are more likely to have attention disorders and below average school performance. They are 44% more likely to show aggressive behavior at school.

Children with a father in prison are more likely to start using drugs earlier and use more drugs. They are more likely to be expelled or drop out of school.

One study that compared boys under age 10 without a father at home, found half of the boys with a father in prison were convicted of a crime as an adult compared to a quarter of the other fatherless boys with similar backgrounds.

Wisconsin spends a lot on prisons. We incarcerate more than twice as many people as Minnesota with roughly the same crime rate and a similar population.

The average annual cost of the drug courts is $7,551. The cost of keeping a well- behaved prisoner is over $30,000. Only seven counties have some form of drug court. In 2010 only one percent of the non-violent offenders in these counties participated in the alternative court programs.

Faith-based groups support statewide expansion of alternatives to prison.  Let’s be smart about crime and join their effort.