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Milwaukee D.A. Wants State To Get Smart About Criminal Justice

We have written several posts about the condition of Wisconsin's criminal justice system. There are many signs that it is working well, including the fact that Wisconsin's prison population has been declining. But one prosecutor from Milwaukee County thinks our state system could work better, save money, and keep more people out of prison.

John Chisholm is the District Attorney for Milwaukee County. He has recently proposed a reform plan which he believes will improve our state's justice system while also saving money. While he has not proposed official legislation yet, Chisholm's reform plans could be good news for both the taxpayers and those in need of criminal defense.

First, Chisholm outlined what's still wrong with our justice system. Crime has gone down in Milwaukee over the last several years, yet our criminal justice costs continue to rise. This is because many of our released prisoners are being sent back to prison for minor parole violations or other small infractions while on court-ordered supervision. This wastes money and is ineffective at reducing crime.

Chisholm's plan to improve Wisconsin's justice system would involve more "evidence-based decision making." This means giving judges better access to information on defendants. This would involve choosing sentences and punishments which better fit the crime, are more fair, and stress reform rather than just jail time.

For instance, rather than sentencing repeat drug possession with prison time, a judge might decide that court-ordered drug rehabilitation and parole offer a more targeted solution. Other cost-effective and targeted justice options include specialty courts, diversion programs and mandatory counseling.

Chisholm added that his plan would include incentives to find alternatives to prison sentencing. It costs the state about $30,000 per year to house a prisoner. Under Chisholm's plan, a county would be reimbursed $15,000 for each convicted offender that avoided imprisonment through alternative sentencing. Counties could then use that money for other projects of their choosing.

These reform strategies have not been turned into legislation yet, but Chisholm's ideas have the support of prominent lawmakers and the Governor. Hopefully, we will see action on this project soon. Smart reform of Wisconsin's justice system could provide a humane approach to criminal justice while saving money to taxpayers.

Source: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online, "Chisholm pushes for reforms," Bruce Vielmetti, 11 February 2011

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