As the movement to reform the criminal justice system gains momentum at the local level, three experts came together for a panel to discuss the system in today’s society and what changes can be made to possibly improve it.
The Tuesday panel, titled “Rethinking Criminal Justice: Incarceration & Race,” hosted New York Times reporter and videographer Yamiche Alcindor, University of Wisconsin sociology professor Mike Massoglia and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.
For Chisholm, now is an exciting time for analysis of the criminal justice system.
But before he could discuss the current state of the criminal justice system, Chisholm first discussed the linear “industrial fishing model” from the 1960s that sought to simply catch criminals and get them through the system.
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“The cops catch them, we cook them, the courts eat them and then Department of Corrections would hold them for a period of time before expelling them back into the community,” Chisholm said. “That was the model and, quite frankly, that is the model that exists in practice in the vast majority of the jurisdictions.”
While a student at UW, Chisholm attended a presentation where his predecessor imparted him with the idea the criminal justice system is a values-based system. He said he realized the prosecutor’s role was obligated to deal with crime on a per-case basis and to solve problems in the community.
Chisholm said The Vera Institute approached him to investigate whether the practices of the DA’s office were leading to disparities in the criminal justice system. This has not been replicated many times, he added.
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This led Chisholm to create greater solutions to problems the community was facing by addressing early interventions.
The prison system in the U.S. has increased as violent crime has decreased, Massoglia said. He added this is problematic when they look at the geographic and racial statistics of incarceration. Rates of incarceration, he said, are between five to eight times higher for black people than they are for white people.
“[The criminal justice system] is really changing the face of American inequality — and really American representation,” Massoglia said. “I would add Wisconsin as among the worst in terms of its racial disproportionality of incarceration and Dane County itself as among the most problematic counties in Wisconsin.”
Alcindor, who focuses on the impact of incarceration in her journalism career, said not only does she look at who is being incarcerated, but also at the effects it has on the communities of those people left behind when someone is incarcerated.
Along with the impact of incarceration, Alcindor evaluates fatal police shootings and how they affect the victims’ families. Most notably, she chronicled Tamir Rice’s sister, who had lost 50 pounds after her brother, a 12-year old black boy, was killed in a 2014 officer-involved shooting.
“I think about the conversations that we have about black men and them being in prison and we talk about them as if they came from these families that all their family members are in prison — when really their sisters could be getting Ph.D.’s,” Alcindor said. “And this idea that in those same families you could have someone who is completely rising to the occasion.”