MILWAUKEE – The criminal justice system needs a major overhaul, policy experts and community leaders say.
A panel hosted by the Libre Institute met at a local Milwaukee parish Tuesday to discuss the problems facing law and order in Wisconsin and nationwide.
The United States incarcerates approximately 1.6 million inmates in federal and state prisons, more than any other country in the world.
“We imprison more people than autocratic countries like China. We imprison more people than Russia,” said Daniel J. D’Amico, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans. “The U.S. hosts more prison inmates than all other developed nations combined.”
But the 1.6 million figure underestimates the total amount of people in the criminal justice system because it excludes people in jails, on probation and on parole, according to panelists.
Once those categories are included, the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 6.9 million are in the adult correctional system in the United States. That translates to one out of every 36 adults.
Libre Institute spokeswoman Marilinda Garcia, who served four terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said over-criminalization is one of the main causes of the large prison population.
“We have all probably committed felonies we didn’t even know existed in this week alone,” she said.
That’s because of the untold and ever-increasing laws on the books, ironically eroding the rule of and respect for the law, Garcia said.
“For the rule of law to work, there needs to be a respect for it among the citizenry,” she said. “Those who enforce the laws don’t even know what the laws are.”
Garcia criticized the emphasis the criminal justice system places on deterrence.
“Deterrence won’t draw a line in the sand for anyone,” she said.
A more important factor is the cycle of poverty that forces people to turn back to crime, Garcia said. Policymakers often make a mistake by separating economic and social issues when they are in reality tied together by a “confluence of factors,” she said.
Brett Healy, president of MacIver Institute for Public Policy, noted the change in the state law that had automatically charged 17-year-olds as adults.
“When you send 17-year-olds to the adult system, you are making them criminals in training,” Healy said. He pointed to MacIver Institute research showing 17-year-olds charged as adults are three times more likely to commit more offenses than those charged as juveniles.
Other panelists emphasized other reasons for recidivism.
Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, said the need for more re-entry and rehabilitation programs is critical to combating recidivism.
“We put people on the streets with no housing and no jobs and we expect them to survive,” Anderson said.
She recommends adopting an approach similar to the military’s method of reintroducing veterans to their families and societies.
When an ex-convict returns to their family, the family is no longer the same, Anderson said.
Anderson also proposes increasing the amount of education and skill training programs in prisons.
“Prisons take you out of society and then have you do nothing,” Anderson said. Educational programs allow prisoners to become productive members of society and reduce their chances of returning to criminal activity.
Anderson and Healy assert the approach could result in significant savings for the government. If recidivism rates are reduced, the government would spend far less money housing inmates, more than offsetting the cost of education programs.
Ryan Ramanarace experienced problems with the prison system firsthand when he spent 14 years in the federal Correction Institution in Oxford, Wisconsin.
“My exposure to education coupled with the dedication of my professors buoyed me on with hope and belief in myself to be something more than a criminal.” Ramanarace said.
He pointed to a study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2014 which found that “inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not.”
Ramanarce said he was labeled as a “bad boy” and a criminal early on.
“I accepted my label, and actively sought ways to perpetuate that persona.” Ramanarce said.
He said communities, educators and police need to stop labeling juveniles as doing so risks creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, as he experienced.
Ramanace said when a juvenile has accepted the label the correction system has placed on them, it doesn’t matter which justice system they go into because their path has already been determined.
Pastor Jose Flores, a member of Gov. Scott Walker’s Juvenile Justice Commission, said the greatest responsibility falls not to the government, but to local communities.
“If we want someone coming out of the system to be accepted back, we need to create the opportunity for that to happen.” Flores said. “If we don’t wrap our arms around them, they aren’t going to make it, they are going back.”
Flores works with another panelist, Ian Bautista, executive director of the Clark Square Neighborhood Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life in Clark Square Milwaukee.
A key part of improving quality of life is public safety, Bautista argues. The community needs to accept ex-convicts and “make the assumption that every person in the community has something to bring to the table.” Bautista said.
The panelists agreed that no single solution could fix over-incarceration, over-criminalization and the barriers to opportunity they create. Instead, myriad reforms are needed to fix the broken criminal justice system.
“We say we are a Christian country,” Anderson said, “but nothing about how we imprison people is Christian.