Dozens of people shared suggestions this week, for how to reduce the state's high rate of African American incarceration.
Milwaukee Public Radio and Milwaukee Public Television held the event on May 20, in Centennial Hall of the Milwaukee Public Library. MPL was a partner for the forum.
Eleven experts addressed a crowd of more than 400, exchanging with the audience ideas for how to prevent black men from going to prison in the first place, and how to reduce recidivism.
Here is a sample of the panelists’ comments:
Andre Brown, case manager for Project RETURN: “Opportunity and resources for these neighborhoods -- that’s what needs to be in these neighborhoods from a government standpoint. And from the business community, there has to be a sense of forgiveness and a sense of working with the ex-offender. 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.”
Clarence Johnson, associate director of Wisconsin Community Services: “If you listen and read too much media information, you begin to believe that black men are inherently bad and bound for prison. Let’s get rid of that notion -- I think that is a major, major problem.”
Lois Quinn, senior scientist with UWM’s Employment and Training Institute; co-author of the report Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013: “We talk seriously about spending $1 billion in taxpayer money for a new Bradley Center, a new auditorium, and new recreational facilities. We talk seriously about spending a fortune building a double-decker freeway to Waukesha. We think the most precious assets we have are those things we build that we spend so much money for, when the most valuable things we have are our people.”
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn: “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. We took a look at our data in the six zip codes that were identified as producing the most individuals who are incarcerated, and we found that those six zip codes represent just 26 percent of the city’s population, but 44 percent of its crime victims. Those six zip codes result in 63 percent of our homicide victims...67 percent of our victims of non-fatal shootings come from that 26 percent of the population. Fifty-five percent of our victims of aggravated assaults, 53 percent of our robbery victims come from the same zip codes the offenders come from.”
Minister William Harrell, co-founder of Table of the Saints prison ministry: "We have several faith-based organizations that are trying to step up to the plate, but we need everybody to step up to the plate, not just the church. The church is where things start, correctly. But we need society at large to help out in mentoring, 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.”
State Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield): “As I’ve spent years involved in prison outreach, you leave those prisons with two fundamental questions. Number one, you ask the question of those that you rub shoulders with, how in the world did they get here? And 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? 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.”
State Sen. Nikiya Harris (D-Milwaukee): “I think we all agree that there is no one way to handle this problem in our community. 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, 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.”
A special Lake Effect broadcast May 23 features an hour-long version of the town hall conversation, and MPTV’s Black Nouveau will air a 30-minute version on June 11.