Alternatives to Incarceration: The Importance of Local Collaboration and Leadership

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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Last week, the Audit Services Division of the Milwaukee County Office of the Comptroller released a helpful new report, “Electronic Monitoring can Achieve Substantive Savings for Milwaukee County, but Only if Pursued on a Large Scale with Satisfactory Compliance.”  Although the voluminous report particularly focuses on electronic monitoring, it also provides a wealth of background information about the recent history of our local jail, House of Correction, and alternatives to incarceration.  The report documents a rich array of new or recently reinvigorated programs that are intended to divert defendants from the jail or House of Correction, either at the pretrial stage or post-adjudication.  The report also notes widespread support for these initiatives among nearly all major stakeholders in the County’s criminal justice system, with the most significant exception being Sheriff David Clarke.

Media coverage centered on the report’s finding that home detention and electronic monitoring of larger numbers of offenders might save the County more than $2.5 million in costs at the House of Correction.  The Office of the Sheriff responded to this finding in a characteristically derisive fashion, particularly criticizing the House’s current leadership for placing drunk drivers on electronic monitoring.

Although the war of words among County officials makes good copy, I think the real story in the report is the extensive and innovative collaboration that has been occurring for the past half-dozen years between court officials, elected leaders, prosecutors, public defenders, and various other stakeholders in order to address Milwaukee’s chronic jail overcrowding and to develop cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.  

Alan Borsuk wrote a nice piece on this topic two years ago in the Marquette Lawyer, but the new report helpfully updates and adds technical detail to his article.

Among other things, the report provides an interesting comparison of Milwaukee County to Brown, Dane, and Waukesha Counties, concluding that “Milwaukee County’s arsenal of pretrial diversion and alternatives to incarceration programming is more robust than the next three most populous counties in Wisconsin.”  (58)

My question is, why now?

As the report documents, our jail overcrowding problems have a long history, but it is only relatively recently that we have seen this flowering of alternatives.

There is a parallel longstanding problem at the state level with prison overcrowding and the size of the state corrections budget. Just as Milwaukee County has an interest in increased use of alternatives to jail and the House of Correction, Wisconsin has an interest in increased use of alternatives to the state prison system (assuming, of course, that the alternatives don’t come with unacceptable public-safety costs).

In both cases, a key group of deciders is the trial-court judges. Thus, an important challenge has been to create robust alternatives to incarceration that inspire the confidence of judges.

As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, Minnesota seems to do a better job of this than Wisconsin, at least judging by Minnesota’s much higher utilization of probation relative to prison.

One reason that Minnesota may do better is its Community Corrections Act, which since 1973 has given counties the option of taking over probation administration from the state department of corrections. Thirty-two counties have done so. The CCA fosters local-level collaboration in designing and administering community corrections, which likely gives locally based and accountable judges a greater sense of confidence in the probation option. Within a system like Wisconsin’s, probation agents are based in a given community, but operate within a centralized bureaucracy that may impose important constraints on their ability to respond to local needs and circumstances (or, at least, that is perceived in such a way). With a locally administered system, judges may feel they have a stronger voice in the way probation is run, at both an individual case and system-wide level, and also feel reassured by the fact that probation is being overseen by officials who are ultimately accountable to the same local voters to whom the judges are accountable.

To be sure, there are important benefits to having a unified statewide system, not the least of which would be the ability to take advantage of economies of scale. There is probably some critical mass of criminal justice business that a county must have in order for local administration to make economic sense.

In any event, the robust utilization of many new alternatives to incarceration in Milwaukee seems to demonstrate the potential for locally led collaboration, even within a system of fractured state and local responsibility for community corrections.

Why now?

The creation of a local Community Justice Council in 2007 seems to have played a helpful role in overcoming traditional institutional barriers to effective problem-solving. Comprised of the major system stakeholders, the CJC provides a structure for regular dialogue and information-sharing. Also important seems to be external grant funding that requires cross-agency collaboration; these grant programs provide financial incentives for stakeholders to get and remain on the same page.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that crime has generally been on a downward trend in Milwaukee over the past half-dozen years; during periods of increasing crime, justice-system innovation may be less feasible, both politically and practically, and finger-pointing among elected leaders is apt to undermine the possibilities for effective collaboration. (See, e.g., the political jockeying between local and state leaders that accompanied this past summer’s spike in violence in Milwaukee.)

I tend to be most interested in structural explanations like these as ways to understand why criminal-justice systems behave as they do. There is no question, however, that the idiosyncrasies of personality, relationships, and leadership also matter. I can’t help but wonder, for instance, if the Sheriff’s very public, personal approach to policy disagreement has in some perverse way actually helped to unify support among other stakeholders for the approaches that he disfavors . . . approaches that have tended, perhaps not coincidentally, to reduce the scope of his power.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

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