Common Council President Cavalier Johnson
Op Ed

How to Prevent Crime

53206 zip code has high crime, high imprisonment. We need a different approach.

By - Jul 9th, 2017 01:18 pm
Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Everything we’ve heard about preventing crime in our neighborhoods would lead us to believe that we simply need to lock more people away. If that was true, as home to America’s most incarcerated zip code, 53206, you’d expect Milwaukee to be a shining example of a safe community. But despite this stratospheric incarceration rate, 53206 alone represents about 10% of the city’s crime — so, clearly, our assumptions are fundamentally flawed.

Last month, the Milwaukee Common Council passed a resolution encouraging the state Legislature to consider a new approach for reforming our broken juvenile justice system. We called for more investments on the front end so that fewer Wisconsinites enter the corrections system in the first place. We recommended ending mandatory minimum, reforming the juvenile justice system in Milwaukee County to ensure that youth receive counseling and rehabilitation, and ending the practice of sending kids to Lincoln Hills, a dangerous facility that has been under federal investigation and facing multiple lawsuits over allegations of horrific treatment of children.

We must listen to young people who overcame the turmoil of the juvenile justice system caused in their lives. Marcus Williams recently wrote about his own experience at Lincoln Hills saying, “When you’re treated like a criminal, you begin to see yourself that way as well.” He noted that the emphasis on punishment instead of prevention “causes irreparable damage not only to a young person’s development and growth, but to their self-worth and dignity.”

Despite the experiences of kids like Marcus and the growing consensus that community-based approaches are the right way to reduce incarceration and violence, some elected officials still support blindly locking people away and hoping that crime just disappears. They are supporting the Victim Prevention Package — legislation that would send more youths to Lincoln Hills for more crimes and for longer periods of time, instead of getting to the root of their issues and focusing on prevention and rehabilitation.

Like my colleagues on the council, I recognize that crime is a major issue in our districts, and am committed to working with them to solve it. We must be sensitive because these issues affect law-abiding citizens in our districts, but we also represent those who have been in the juvenile justice system and know firsthand that the current approach offers no real solution.

We must address the unmet needs of Milwaukee’s kids to produce positive, safe outcomes for everyone: young people, their families, our communities and even the taxpayers who shoulder the estimated $30 million cost per year of running these ineffective, treacherous facilities, that only cause more harm, trauma and increase the likelihood that youth will re-offend and end up in the adult system.

As taxpayers and as community members, we all benefit when we invest in programs that lift up each person and give everyone the chance to positively contribute to our society. The system is most effective when we proactively invest in things such as quality education and trauma-informed care, and connect more people to living wage jobs that stabilize families and neighborhoods.

If lawmakers are serious about making neighborhoods safe, they must look beyond the outdated incarceration mind-set to solve our communities’ problems. A preventative approach to public safety, centered on the root causes of poverty and crime, should be everyone’s goal. That would truly be a victim prevention package.

Cavalier Johnson is Milwaukee’s 2nd District Alderman.

This column was originally published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

6 thoughts on “Op Ed: How to Prevent Crime”

  1. Tom bamberger says:

    Before minimum sentences were enforced I got busted for drugs by the feds. Ended up in John Reynolds court for sentencing.

    He was brief. Basically said if he sent me to prison I would just come out a worse person with a big strike against me. But if I ended up in his court again he would me to jail. I got probation under the Youth Corrections Act meaning if I stayed out of trouble my record would be expunged in 5 years.

    Some 20 or so years later I was contracted by the Federal Government to take a group picture of the justices. I thanked Reynolds. Without him and a humane criminal justice system I would never have taken his picture that day. I would have still been jail.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    A suburban legislator has an op-ed about this in today’s paper. Like most everything from suburban Republican legislators it is useless. He says he recently toured 53206 for “a few hours” (WOW!!!) and goes on to criticize the approach of Milwaukee officials while not offering a single suggestion of his own. He plays the blame game and has nothing remotely productive to say. With this approach the GOP can say everyone else is at fault while also offering no ideas of their own.

  3. JasonTroll says:

    Vince, I agree with you.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    I knew it was possible TJ!

  5. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    What the GOP doesn’t take into consideration is that it cost significantly less to educate a child than to incarcerate that child. The outcome of the investment in education is productive citizens who contribute to the community and pay taxes. Too often in this state with our inhumane, trauma-inducing juvenile justice system, an incarcerated child grows up to be an incarcerated adult, a continued drain on resources. We can invest in our children, including the children in 53206 and make a better life for everyone; or we can continue to throw scarce state resources into a failed system. We are not talking rocket science here.

  6. GRNPAKWH says:

    Mary Kay, I agree with your comment; however,most kids in the 53206 zip live their entire lives in that neighborhood. A job opportunity is part time stocking at a corner store or selling drugs to the suburban kids who drive in to make a score. In their minds they cannot understand the need to get an education. MPS does a good job at providing an educational opportunity and should be applauded for their efforts. The kids need a reason to take advantage of an education. Milwaukee is highly segregated and racism is an anvil tied around the kids necks. Unless we solve the social problems first all the educational improvements we make will be wasted.

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