It happens in cities throughout the United States pretty consistently – a slight uptick in crime in urban areas leads to suburban-based lawmakers calling for tougher crime laws. This past Wednesday, a press conference was held by the Waukesha County Republicans at the West Allis Police Station where State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, both of Waukesha County, highlighted the need for their Victim Prevention Package – eight bills that would strengthen penalties for carjacking, and allow judges to impose longer sentences on juvenile offenders.
Under the proposed legislation, an increased number of child and teen offenders could be sent to state youth prisons for longer sentences for a broader spectrum of crimes. Two youth juvenile prisons, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, are currently under federal investigation for alleged child neglect and prisoner abuse.
State Rep. David Bowen was born and raised in Milwaukee and has been an elected official there. He has seen this scenario play out over and over; always with the same results.
“It seems that several members of our state Legislature have agreed that placing kids in adult prison is the thing that will prevent crime and will prevent carjackings from happening,” Bowen tells Madison365. “A lot of us on the other side of the aisle and even advocates for the community, know that this is not the answer. Putting young people in adult prison only makes things worse.
“My colleagues are propping this up as a solution. They want their residents to feel safer and that this is the way out of what we are dealing with,” Bowen adds. “They have to be honest about the things that they are propping up and how they don’t work. They’re trying to sell a bag of things that aren’t good. They want you to believe that it’s a bag of goods, but it’s not.”
The murder of a Milwaukee housing inspector Gregg Zyszkiewicz, killed during an attempted carjacking while on duty, has prompted local Milwaukee officials and Wisconsin state Legislatures members to act on crime in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Alderperson Bob Donovan said at the press conference that crime is spreading out of Milwaukee. “It is like a cancer and, unless steps are taken, that cancer will continue,” he said. “These legislators get it, but sadly there is a segment in this community — a segment of individuals, and also a segment of elected officials — who don’t get it, who are literally in denial about how bad some of the things have gotten in a growing number of neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee.”
The “crime is coming to our suburbs” theme was echoed by Sanfelippo who said at the press conference, “Our residents here now are very fearful that the crime wave is going to continue out in the suburbs. This is the next front.”
State Senator LaTonya Johnson, a Milwaukee Democrat, responded to the comments from the press conference with this Tweet: “More GOP fearmongering isn’t what we need to address the epidemic of gun violence that has victimized my community for far too long,” she said.
Bowen, too, calls out the fearmongering – the hidden message politics, he says, around “keep YOUR crime in Milwaukee from getting to OUR suburbs” while lawmakers continue to pass budgets without increased prevention funding. Bowen says that, unfortunately, his political colleagues’ fearmongering is not really offering any solutions that work and will, in the end, cost taxpayers even more money than they are paying already.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the fact that the dog-whistle hidden-message politics that are being played right now about crime in Milwaukee going outside of its bounds to effect the crime-less suburbs. There is a lot of danger of elected officials popping up legislation under that umbrella,” says Bowen, who also serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “It’s fearmongering. There are dynamics of race at play here where these are majority-white suburbs that are basically saying ‘Milwaukee needs to keep crime in in its own boundaries’ and the only way to fix this issue is to use methods that don’t actually solve the issue.”
“It’s important for residents in those areas and those districts that we be honest about solutions to crime in Milwaukee. I work in Shorewood, a suburb and separate city of Milwaukee, and there’s no way I would go to those residents and say, “Things will get better by being more punitive.’ I tell them that things will get by doing things that are evidence-based. That’s where we can gain the respect of and the attention of the residents that are at the grassroots level who actually want these things to get better.”
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the fact that the dog-whistle hidden-message politics that are being played right now about crime in Milwaukee going outside of its bounds to effect the crime-less suburbs. There is a lot of danger of elected officials popping up legislation under that umbrella. It’s fearmongering. There are dynamics of race at play here where these are majority-white suburbs that are basically saying ‘Milwaukee needs to keep crime in in its own boundaries’ and the only way to fix this issue is to use methods that don’t actually solve the issue.”
Indeed, the United States is already the most punitive, most incarceration-loving country in the world by far with a quarter of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of the world’s population. Bowen says that the current system is not only devastating to the prison population and its families, but it also digs deep into the pockets of taxpaying Wisconsinites and Americans. According to a 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study, the number of those incarcerated has increased by over 700 percent over the last four decades. The cost to the taxpayer? $39 billion.
“We’ve already gotten to the place in our budget in, I believe, 2014-2015, where we have spent more dollars in our state on corrections than education. Throughout our state’s history, that has never happened up until a couple years ago,” Bowen says. “It really shows the dynamic that we have people in lawmaking positions who continue to pop up this message that has shown not to work. We actually spend money on worse outcomes for our community. This new proposal will only make things much worse.”
Milwaukee Common Council members held a special meeting on Thursday morning, April 13th, to discuss this issue. Tomorrow, the Milwaukee Common Council is slated to vote on whether it supports a package of bills in the state Legislature aimed at stiffening the penalties for repeat violent offenders. Three Milwaukee Common Council members – Donovan, Tony Zielinski, and Mark Borkowski, endorsed the legislation during the lawmaker’s press conference at the West Allis Police Department.
“These some of the more conservative members of the Milwaukee Common Council are propping up sending kids to adult prison as if that is the be-all, end-all solution and at the same time those same electeds have not focused on investments that go to prevention,” Bowen says. “They continue to focus on the punitive measures instead of the preventative measures that we should be supporting that other states and municipalities continue to focus on and continue to get better outcomes than we do.
“When something happens, those same elected officials do not focus on the fact that they had a chance to invest in prevention in their budgets time and time again,” he adds. “We need to get them to see the light.”
Bowen says that he believes that crime is much more effectively decreased by addressing underlying social problems through education, jobs programs, and support early on in life.
“We know for a fact that with intensive mentorship and monitoring we are engaging and developing young people and keeping them from going down a negative path. We know that works,” Bowen says. “We know that community-based solutions are better where young people don’t have to be sent four hours away at a maximum-security-like setting. We know that there are ways to rehabilitate and treat young people to prevent them from continuing down that wrong path and they get way better outcomes and they are cheaper than the money that we are spending on traditional incarceration or this traditional sense of placing kids in an adult prison.
“I would love to make sure that the same colleagues and elected officials that I have – even on the city level that are now propping this up as the answer – that they see the light in an approach that also includes way more effective practices and investments in prevention,” he adds. “I think we truly need to focus there if we truly want to see change in actually preventing crime and actually preventing the carjackings we are seeing. It means that we have to develop young people so that they can have something else to aspire to.”
Bowen says that they are aiming to get elected officials and advocates and community members together for a press conference within the next few days to talk more about this important issue.
“We just want to emphasis that there is a different way to do this. We want to tell our colleagues that are advocating for sending kids to adult prison and longer sentencing, that the young people we are talking about are redeemable,” Bowen says. “We can take them off the path that they are on with more effective practices in community-based settings and programs we know that work that is not being supported now. These programs can work at the capacity for all of the young people that need them.
“Let’s try this prevention path. It’s not something that we fully agreed that we need to invest in,” Bowen adds. “But it is far less costly and it has been shown to work.”