Evers, Advocates Discuss Justice System Reform, Legalizing Pot
Evers budget includes major reforms and legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.
Governor Tony Evers sat down with advocates and two elected officials Friday for a roundtable on criminal justice reform in Wisconsin.
Evers has been working to make the case for his biennial budget proposal, which he’s calling the “Badger Bounce Back.” Earlier in the week he visited Milwaukee to stump for the provisions that would help reform the state’s juvenile justice system.
At the forefront were reforms to sentencing and probation and parole, and legalization of marijuana. The criminal justice system and drug laws in Wisconsin are both sources and examples of continuing racial disparities in Wisconsin. Studies have found that more than 50% of Black men in Milwaukee have been incarcerated, and that Black people are four times as likely as white people in to be arrested for marijuana in Wisconsin.
“The system isn’t serving the people in the system, it’s not serving the victims, it’s not serving public safety, it’s not serving future success for the state,” Evers said.
A significant part of his proposal is increased funding for treatment, alternatives and diversion (TAG) programs, which would allow prosecutors and judges to offer programs and treatments during sentencing instead of incarceration.
Ramiah Whiteside, who was formerly incarcerated and is now an advocate for criminal justice reform, said investing in TAG “would open up monumental doors for people to never see the inside of a prison cell.” Had they been in place when he first came in contact with the criminal justice system, Whiteside said “I probably would not have been incarcerated.”
Jerome Dillard, state executive director of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, explained that he believes changing the system of revocations for probation and parole is critical to reform. “What drains the hope is… cycling in and out of our county jails and [Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility],” he said.
Dillard said the policies and investments proposed in Evers’ budget represent something he’s never seen in two decades of working on these issues and with people involved in the criminal justice system.
During the discussion Friday morning, he told the others that when he was recently in Madison, testifying before the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, he thought to himself, “Wow, I’m asking for the DOC budget to be passed, that’s a twist for me.”
Lt. Gov. Barnes made a similar observation on the shifting public sentiments towards the justice system. “There would have been a point in time when people campaigned on putting more people in prison, putting more people behind bars,” he said. “But now we are leading with different values.”
Chairwoman Nicholson explained that she was raised in the 53206 zip code, infamous for its terrible racial disparities in “wealth and health” and for being the “home of mass incarceration.”
“I’m a product of that,” she said. “I was a witness to all the social ills that are experienced in that particular ZIP code.” It’s for these reasons, she said, that she got involved in local government.
Sean Kendricks, an organizer with BLOC, noted that many people, including himself, use marijuana as a form of self-medication. But because marijuana is criminalized, it can land people in jail or prison, or lead to a revocation of probation or parole.
“In the event that Wisconsin legalizes marijuana, anybody who went to jail on a marijuana offense, especially for trafficking, should be the first person in line for a job at a dispensary, or the first person who should be granted a permit for the dispensary,” Barnes said. “That’s just just my personal opinion on the matter, because that’s how we do reverse restorative justice in my opinion.”
The Republican-controlled state Legislature will be the biggest roadblock to passing legalization and the reforms in Evers’ budget.
State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu recently said that he doesn’t have the votes to pass marijuana legalization because he doesn’t have 17 votes in the Republican Caucus for it. But Evers said he doesn’t need 17, he needs five because there are 12 democrats that will vote for it. “But because this is the way crazy politics work nowadays, he believes that he has to have 17 votes.”
Evers said the campaign for marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform is an “uphill fight,” and offered this call to action: “We have to call out, frankly, stupidity when we see it.”
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