Legal professionals discussed problems with the criminal justice system and the importance of reform at a Cap Times panel Tuesday.
Defense attorney Dean Strang, who was featured in “Making a Murderer,” said one of the biggest problems with the criminal justice system is that minorities and people of low-socioeconomic status are disproportionately affected.
Strang said race, ethnicity and citizenship status influence socioeconomic status, with minorities and immigrants more likely to be impoverished and imprisoned. If an individual is poor, Strang said, he or she is more likely to have negative contact with police, get arrested or be expelled.
Former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said many people believe they’re not racist, but studies indicate subliminal racism is pervasive. She said people don’t realize they are racist.
Additionally, when people of low-socioeconomic status have to go to court for a minor crime, they can’t pay for an attorney to defend themselves, Strang said. When this happens they are provided with an attorney from the public defender’s office, but in Wisconsin, these positions are severely underfunded.
“As a public, how reliable do we think a lot of these convictions are when we’re systematically underfunding the defense side?” Strang said.
Wisconsin has the lowest rate of compensation for court appointed council in the entire nation, Strang said. Public defenders get paid around $40 an hour, while other attorneys receive anywhere from $100 to $300 an hour, Strang said.
When Strang brought this issue forward to the state Supreme Court, it listened, but told him to go to the Legislature for funding, which refuses to increase the pay, Strang said.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell said the way the state has treated the heroin epidemic today differs sharply from how the rise of crack cocaine was handled in the ’90s.
According to the 2013 National Forum Journal of Counseling and Addiction, crack cocaine was used more by black males than any other racial and gender group. Instead of being provided with resources to help like Narcan and treatment programs, people were put in prison or jail for using crack. He said he wished his fellow African-Americans were given the same resources.
“I wish my people had been given this opportunity,” Mitchell said. “They weren’t bad, they just needed treatment.”
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Though Mitchell said the optimist in him says this indicates that as a state we’re learning how to better handle nonviolent crimes, he said his pessimist side says the real reason is because of racial disparities.
Lautenschlager said an additional problem is once people finish their prison sentences, they can’t integrate back into society.
“Once somebody’s out of prison it doesn’t get any better, it gets worse,” Lautenschlager said.
When people get out of prison, Lautenschlager said, there are jobs that are unavailable to them and even some laws that prevent people from accessing public housing.
One thing that prevents reformed criminals from getting jobs is CCAP, a database where people can check if someone has a criminal record, Mitchell said. While he supports open records, this prevents people from having a fresh start, Mitchell said.
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Strang said other freedoms are also taken away. Even though it’s a better option than prison, people who are on probation aren’t even allowed to vote, Strang said.
Everett said it’s important we focus our efforts on restorative justice rather than harsh sentencing.
“The ability for us to give people their freedom is limited [by] how we understand state [statutes,]” Mitchell said. “As a community … [we need to] fight a little bit more to … give people an opportunity so when they get out of jail, they can get a job, they can get some housing … they cannot go back to the things that glued them to the system in the first place.”