How to Make Courthouse Walls ‘More Porous’

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Sculptural Group by Daniel Chester French. Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr

Can the courthouse experience of a prosecutor or a public defense lawyer translate to addressing the big-picture needs of a community?

If you ask that question to someone fresh out of law school and immersed in learning the trade the answer is probably—at best—“I don’t know” and possibly a declarative “No, I just don’t see it.”

For some, that impression hardens with the passage of time and experience. The individual, fact-specific and adversarial nature of the criminal justice system makes it really difficult for practitioners to find the time and space to step back from the pressing demands of the work, and think about system outcomes beyond wins and losses and the next court date.

Despite these systemic barriers to reform, it seems intuitively right that the connective tissue of a new approach has to begin with what we share in common as lawyers: a sincere and passionate empathy for the people we are serving, whether we label them victims or defendants, and a desire for our work to extend in a positive way outward into the community.

In a recent publication by the Kennedy School of Government, we describe the process by which criminal justice reform was launched in Milwaukee.

John Chisholm

John Chisholm. Milwaukee DA

To accomplish a shift in thinking and practice, we identified the need for new approaches that transgress institutional boundaries, and how we found non-traditional partners who could help inspire culture change.

It is important to note the degree to which the efforts we describe are at the same time actual, emerging and aspirational. The paper is designed to avoid in-depth discussion of specific programs and projects, because we wanted to describe our experiences in more conceptual terms.

But those programs are important because they force us outside the predictable discomfort of the courthouse, and help us see the connection between our decisions and the impact on the fabric of the community.

Here are a few examples of what we have done to make the walls of the courthouse in Milwaukee more porous, so that the experiences in the community can inform our actions and in turn our actions can be understood by the community.

Community Prosecutors

 We have been deeply influenced by the work of urban sociologists and are convinced that neighborhoods and the people in those neighborhoods really matter. In 2000, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office created Community Prosecutors who were assigned to neighborhoods/police districts in the City of Milwaukee.

Their purpose was multifold, but it was expressly not to increase the number of prosecutable cases being referred for criminal charging. Rather, armed with a focus on prevention, Community Prosecutors worked with neighborhood activists and leaders, police authorities and others to untangle problems which had the risk of boiling over.

Tom Reed

Wisconsin Public Defender Thomas H. Reed

They coordinated nuisance abatement efforts with public safety priorities and better linking community resources with front end diversion strategies.

The Public Defender’s Office has created a special unit working on front-end strategies, and can respond to community prosecutors looking for alternative approaches to conventional charging for some individuals.

Dealing with Trauma

Living in the neighborhood space and developing relationships with people outside our courtroom experience helped us recognize how deeply trauma runs through the lives of so many people and affects the way they interact with each other and with police. It helped us in turn recognize the secondary trauma that is a concern for criminal justice professionals.

With the support of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, we created an interactive program to begin building a trauma informed approach for our court system, believing that we will all do a better job helping people if we understand why certain behaviors come to us.

Trauma is also a key factor in domestic violence cases that have long, generational cycles of repetition. A group of important stakeholders, including the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, the State of Wisconsin, Children’s Hospital, and the domestic violence victim advocates from Sojourner Family Peace built a state-of-the-art center for families affected by domestic violence and related problems.

As a consequence of the deep collaborations that were formed, a new trauma-informed approach was developed to use post plea agreements and state of the art treatment resources for victims and defendants to work on issues related to domestic violence episodes.

This program has allowed the safe restoration of many families and the people involved. Over 200-plus cases have been safely redirected from criminal convictions with this approach.

Preventing Violence

 Violence prevention is another area in which Milwaukee has been very active. Violence frightens the public the most when it seems random, dissociated and “senseless.”

The creation of the Homicide Review Commission (HRC) allows us to carefully analyze and map homicides, non-fatal shootings, sexual assaults, and opioid overdose deaths to better understand who is involved, and comprehend the conditions that precipitate violence. It requires non-traditional partnerships between law enforcement, public health and neighborhood centered social services.

With an understanding of the demographics of risk comes the opportunity for prevention. Each review has staff from multiple agencies looking closely for patterns in the incidents under review with the express goal of preventing future occurrences.

Blueprint for Peace

A separate but related initiative is the Blueprint for Peace , led by the Office of Violence Prevention for the City of Milwaukee.

This is a community led project using multiple approaches to end violence. Although its face is often the violence interrupters who are individuals with their own history of criminal activity who have the street credibility to intervene and talk people down from retaliatory actions, the “blueprint” has measurable goals for a number of institutions including the criminal justice system.

We work closely with those involved and see this as an important asset.

The Blueprint for Peace has brought together many organizations and groups unfamiliar with the criminal justice system but interested in supporting reform efforts underway.

We have worked closely with groups who rely on the success of public safety efforts but whose primary focus is on different community needs. In 2016, we worked closely with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) of Chicago to host a “Healthier Communities Conference” in Milwaukee.

The FRB’s interest in neighborhood economic development and increasing bank ng participation cannot be successful without a strong partnership with public safety efforts. More remains to be done, but good criminal justice policy is also a basis for sound economic development which was featured at this conference,

Milwaukee will soon be opening a Transitions Clinic based on the positive experiences in other communities.

These clinics are a partnership with a major hospital and local health centers to provide health services to the reentry population. The results of these partnerships have included a drop in healthcare costs and expensive treatment in emergency departments at local hospitals. In other communities, these clinics have also reduced some of the failures facing people returning from incarceration.

With the help of the MacArthur Foundation we hope to document this reduction in local incarceration due to the Transition Clinic model and provide it with a very strong criminal justice system partner.

Finally, the Milwaukee Court System, the Office of the District Attorney and State Public Defender, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and other co-sponsors are hosting the 6th Annual Conference on Race and the Criminal Justice System.

One day a year, the Courts are closed and all participants go offsite for a day-long conference. These programs are mandatory for those in each agency. They feature a powerful array of approaches to this very important topic. The event is designed by the Equity and Inclusion Committee which meets monthly to work on these issues.

An interagency book club has now been created to allow system professionals to meet more regularly to discuss issues related to racial disparity in our criminal justice system, white privilege, structural and economic racism, segregation and, most importantly, how to work on changing things in Milwaukee.

Very little of what is described above falls in the category of traditional processing. But it is nurtured by the overarching values we described in our recent paper. We remain hopeful for the changes that are possible.

Additional Reading: In Milwaukee, ‘Justice’ is About More Than Punishment The Crime Report, Jan 26, 2020

Milwaukee DA Chisholm: ‘Don’t Funnel All Local Problems into the Justice System’, The Crime Report, Sept. 26, 2015

John Chisholm is the District Attorney for Milwaukee. Tom Reed is Wisconsin Public Defender. They welcome readers’ comments.

One thought on “How to Make Courthouse Walls ‘More Porous’

  1. I have a 22 year old son sitting in jail for 1 1/2 years. He has never made a statement, yet they’ve already proven him guilty. He is not. The 1st public defender completely broke so many standards & policies under the American Bar Association rules. A complaint is In the process The unethical, biased treatment he has endured is grounds for disbarment. The lack of medical care in this jail for broken hand, now some disfigurement, is grounds for a lawsuit. I have complained and called the Director at the jail. I tried to file a complaint with the Department of Corrections and was basically laughed at. I have tried to find a local non-profit advocacy group that is not funded by the State of Kentucky…there are none. I am determined to let the public know about what really goes on to start an advocacy for reform, but I have no clue where to begin. Any feedback, direction or advice would be great.
    I love The Crime Report, and I read it daily. I respect the work the writers bring to the table. Thank you so much for your time hola

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