John Chisholm Crushes Sheriff Clarke
The sheriff takes some pot shots at DA, only to get mowed down, in an entertaining -- and very revealing -- exchange.
At the outset it’s worth noting that the campaign season is upon us, and the recent debate between Sheriff David Clarke and Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm may have been all the more heated because of that. Clarke is running for reelection in August and victory is far from certain, so he may be looking to win votes by picking fights with the justice “establishment” in Milwaukee County. Chisholm is a Democrat and his fellow party members would love to see the defeat of Clarke, who runs as a Dem but espouses views to the right of many Republicans.
Clarke wrote a four-page letter to Chisholm asking him to suspend the use of plea bargains, deferred prosecution and the like. Chisholm responded with a densely detailed, five-page letter that was filled with fascinating details about how the justice system works, and Clarke offered a three-page letter of rebuttal.
So who had the best insults?
Clarke typically blasts officials without getting equal heat, but not this time. To the sheriff’s initial letter accusing Chisholm of a “soft-on-crime” approach, Chisholm offers some choice slap downs:
“I don’t work in a fancy office. I don’t have a public relations office spinning out propaganda 24 hours a day, and I don’t have horses or a fat public pension waiting for me. I don’t spend my time on talk radio or 3 month Southern California junkets… I know it is more fun to style yourself as the lone voice… but the things you say have all been said before, and require neither courage nor particular insight.”
All highly entertaining, if you go in for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, who does better on the merits of the argument? That’s where things get interesting. For starters, Chisholm offers a detailed take on how Clarke has reduced the manpower dealing with the problems he presumes to solve.
“Your agency (the sheriff’s department) does not investigate homicides, nor does it have the capacity to do so after long years of neglect at your hands,” Chisholm writes. Clarke offers no denial.
The sheriff’s office, Chisholm notes, used to have 18 deputies assigned to help the DA’s anti-gang squad and to identify and arrest firearms offenders, but all that has been lost due to Clarke’s decision to disband the units in his department handling this work.
“I don’t have the luxuries you have indulged in at the expense of the Milwaukee County taxpayers,” Chisholm writes. “I can’t decide to refrain from witness protection, homicide prosecution, sexual assault prosecution, gun prosecution and domestic violence prosecution because I don’t have the resources.” Incredibly, Clarke offers no denial of this.
“Instead of creating a four million dollar deficit for County taxpayers, in part because you have your deputies collecting overtime while sitting passively in chairs watching courthouse security personnel work, you could instead assign them to work with the Milwaukee Police in the creation of a gun violence task force,” Chisholm chides. Once again, no response from Clarke.
As I’ve written before, the Sheriff’s office handles a minuscule amount of the county’s violent and property crimes, just one-fifth of one percent of all the crimes in a recent two-year period. The Milwaukee County Sheriff has never handled that much crime, but it was news to me that Clarke has slashed even the little manpower assigned to such tasks.
“Why did you take these steps? Because you said they were too expensive,” Chisholm notes.
Yet Clarke wants the DA’s office to end all plea bargaining, which would have massive costs, as Chisholm notes. “Even the most right-leaning, tough-on-crime states in the country like Texas have recognized that such costs are not sustainable, and have instead adopted the programs for which I advocate, as the rational balance between public safety and resources,” Chisholm writes. “I ask you to show me any jurisdiction in the country that does not allow plea bargains, probation dispositions and read-in charges for Part 1 offenses.”
Once again, Clarke offers no direct response, but does suggest Chisholm read Judge Ralph Adam Fine’s book assailing plea bargaining, Escape of the Guilty. It may be that Fine offers some answers to Chisholm’s very specific points, but Clarke can’t marshall any. Perhaps Clarke hasn’t read the book himself. Indeed, his letter offers a professor’s summary of Fine’s book. Better than CliffsNotes, I suppose.
Chisholm also details the high conviction rate his office has had for violent crimes like homicides and aggravated assaults. “I ask you to explain how Milwaukee can have the highest incarceration rate in the country if the prosecutors and courts are not ‘tough on crime’?” No response from Clarke.
“No prosecutor’s office in the country… is more open to outside evaluation and assessment than ours,” Chisholm writes. “If you participated in the Community Justice Council you would know this. Here is a list of the entities we have invited to help us improve our system: The Vera Institute of Justice, the National Institute of Corrections, the Center of Court Innovation, the National Institute of Justice and Measures for Justice, to name just a few. Milwaukee County is recognized by outside criminal justice professionals as a leader in justice reform, despite your refusal to participate in this process.”
Once again, not a word of reply to this from Clarke.
And that leaves out much more Chisholm had to say. Far from bloviating, the DA wiped the floor with Clarke.
In 2010, Clarke won the Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for opponent Chris Moews, who is running again this year. Clarke seems more vulnerable this time, and may be more in need of crossover votes by Republicans.
But they would have to bypass the GOP primary, which includes contested races for State Treasurer and Secretary of State. Those aren’t very sexy races and I could imagine some Republicans deciding the race for sheriff is more important.
Moreover, the Democratic primary challenge to Congresswoman Gwen Moore by Gary George gives an additional reason for GOP voters to cross over into the Democratic primary, to vote against the very liberal Moore.
Which prompts the question, who is supporting George? One rumor is that Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor is still stung by the loss of a candidate (Millie Coby) she supported against Rep. Sandy Pasch in 2012, and because Moore supported Pasch, Taylor has pushed George to run. (Taylor did not respond to my phone and email messages about this.)
Of course, Republicans who want to drive the crossover vote for Clarke might also support George’s run.
Update 11:30 a.m. June 12: Lowell Fissinger, an aide to Taylor, emailed me to say that “Senator Taylor is not supporting Gary George against Gwen Moore.”