Violence in the Heartland, Part V: Wisconsin’s Cities

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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Since 1985, Wisconsin’s seven largest cities have followed markedly different paths in their rates of reported violent crime.  Two, Waukesha and Appleton, have consistently had lower rates than the state as a whole, while two others, Milwaukee and Racine, have typically had rates that are two to three times higher than the state as a whole.  Kenosha and Racine have significantly reduced their rates of violence since the 1980s, while the other five cities have experienced sizable net increases.

Here are the overall trends, in the form of reported violent crimes per 100,000 city residents:

Cities year by year

In recent years, as you can see, Waukesha has easily had the lowest rates and Milwaukee the highest.  Earlier, Appleton used to compete with some success for lowest and Racine for highest.

Here are the net changes in the cities’ crime rates from 1985-1987 to 2010-2012:   Read more »

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Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward Truth in Sentencing

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I’ve posted a number of times about the interesting results of the Marquette Law School Poll regarding the attitudes of Wisconsin voters toward truth in sentencing and early release from prison (e.g., here and here).  I’ve now finished a more in-depth analysis of the survey data with Professor Darren Wheelock of Marquette’s Department of Social and Cultural Sciences.  Our results are discussed in a new paper on SSRN (available here).  The abstract sets forth a little more of the context and key findings:

In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors analyzed the results of public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.

Entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” our paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

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Violence in the Heartland, Part III: City Trends

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In earlier posts (here and here), I have explored state-level violence trends since 1960 in the seven midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  This post focuses on the data from the largest city of each of these states.  Since Chicago does not report its rape numbers in conformity with FBI standards, it is omitted from the analysis.

Here are the city trends since 1985 (reported violent crimes per 100,000 residents):

city data

What stands out most is the very wide, persistent gap between Detroit at the top of the chart and Des Moines at the bottom.   Read more »

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“The Past Is a Foreign Country” — Or Is It?

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dean bookI’ve recently finished reading Dean Strang’s fascinating new book, “Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror.”  The book recounts the story of a once-famous (or infamous) criminal case that was tried in Milwaukee nearly a century ago.  The case arose from a short, armed skirmish between police and residents of Milwaukee’s largely Italian, working-class Bay View neighborhood in September 1917. In the wake of that violence, police indiscriminately arrested dozens of Italian immigrants, ultimately resulting in the trial of eleven suspected anarchists in November 1917 on charges of assault with intent to murder.

America’s recent entry into the First World War had already created a public atmosphere that was hardly favorable to immigrants and political dissidents, but a terrible local tragedy may have wiped out any remaining hope that the defendants would receive a fair trial.  Just days before the jury was selected, a bomb exploded in a Milwaukee police station, killing ten — America’s single greatest loss of officers in the line of duty before 9/11. Although the Bay View defendants were not formally charged with this crime — indeed, the case was never solved and no one was ever formally charged — the bombing was widely believed to be the work of the defendants’ supporters.

Little wonder that all of the defendants were convicted on a dubious conspiracy theory in a trial that reeked of pro-prosecution bias from start to finish.   Read more »

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Violence in the Heartland, 1960-2012–Part One

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Despite their geographical proximity and economic and cultural similarities, the states of the Midwest have had very different rates of violent crime over the past five decades.  Moreover, through periods of dramatic increases and decreases in violent crime, the relative positions of the states have remained fairly stable.  The low-violence states in 1960 remain at the low end today, while the high-violence states in 1960 remain at the high end today.  However, the gap between the high states and low states has been slowly diminishing for many years.  In another decade, the state that has historically had the highest rate of violence, Illinois, may conceivably fall to about the same level as the state that has historically had the lowest, Iowa.

Readers of this Blog may know that I have previously written a series of posts on crime and punishment in three midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (e.g., here and here).  With this post, I begin a new series that will explore regional trends more broadly.  With violent crime such a staple of local news coverage, I think it’s helpful to be able to place the crime du jour within a wider spatial and temporal context; perhaps this bigger-picture view may lessen the tendency to adopt hastily conceived policy responses to whatever happens to be the latest outrage.

Here are the rates of reported violent crime (per 100,000 residents) in the midwestern states and the U.S. as a whole since 1960:

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Truth in Sentencing and Early Release: A Follow Up

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Last week, I spoke on truth in sentencing at Marquette Law School as part of Mike Gousha’s “On the Issues” series.  My PowerPoint slides and a video of the event are available here.  Alan Borsuk summarized some of the key points in this blog post.

If you watch the video, you will see that time constraints caused me to skip over a couple of slides.  I’ll fill in those gaps here and then suggest where I would like to see Wisconsin go with early release.

First, I think one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of our polling research is that many Wisconsin voters say they support both truth in sentencing (“TIS”) and release from prison when an offender can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to public safety, even though these two policies are in tension with one another.   Read more »

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Lewd and Lascivious Behavior Laws: A Milwaukee Story

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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The Accused

Lee Erickson’s bio attests to his national prominence. Among other things, he served on the Choral Panel of the National Endowment of the Arts and as dean of the American Guild of Organists. But in Milwaukee, he is best known as the conductor of the chorus of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Erickson was appointed associate director of the MSO Chorus in 1978, and he has served as the chorus’s director since 1994. By all accounts, the group has flourished under his leadership. The MSO website quotes music director Edo de Waart as saying: “The MSO has the good fortune of having a first-class volunteer chorus. With a chorus of this caliber, the options for performing great works in the repertoire are immense.” Frequent guest conductor Nicholas McGegan has called the chorus “a real gem,” and Tom Strini of the ThirdCoast Digest referred to it as “the jewel in Milwaukee’s cultural crown.”

If you type Erickson’s name into the Google search box, however, these achievements aren’t among the first results that appear on your screen.

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Alternatives to Incarceration: The Importance of Local Collaboration and Leadership

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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.   Read more »

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Milwaukee Arrests, Part IV: Racial Disparity Story Similar in Chicago, Sort Of

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Race & Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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In the first post in this series, I explored the persistent racial disparities in Milwaukee arrests.  How does Chicago compare?  In a nutshell, the overall disparity rates are remarkably similar in Milwaukee and Chicago, but the War on Drugs drives the disparities to a much greater extent in the Windy City than here.

Let’s start by taking a look at black and white arrest rates in Chicago since 2000:

Chicago Arrests

As is apparent, arrest rates have been coming down for both races, but white rates remain well below black.

Here is what has been happening in Milwaukee during the same time period:   Read more »

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Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Judges & Judicial Process, Marquette Law School, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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PrisonIn 2009, Wisconsin expanded release opportunities for prisoners and established a new Earned Release Review Commission to handle the petitions.  Just two years later, however, the legislature reversed course, largely repealing the 2009 reforms and abolishing the ERRC. The 2011 revisions effectively returned authority over “early” release to judges. Critics of the ERRC, an appointed body, maintained that it was more appropriate to give release authority to elected judges.

However, last month’s Marquette Law School Poll indicates that Wisconsin voters would actually prefer to put early release into the hands of a statewide commission of experts rather than the original sentencing judge.

Among the 713 randomly selected Wisconsin voters who participated, a 52% majority stated that release decisions should be made by a commission of experts, as opposed to only about 31% who favored judges. An additional 13% stated that both options were equally good. The Poll’s margin of error was 3.7%.

We asked several questions to try to identify more specifically the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both options.   Read more »

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Truth in Sentencing: We Like the Symbolism, But Have Mixed Feelings About the Practical Policy

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Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters support truth in sentencing, the 1998 law that abolished parole in the state and required prisoners to serve the full term of their sentences.  At the same time, a majority of Wisconsin voters (54.5 percent) agreed that once a prisoner serves half of his term, he should be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.  These seemingly inconsistent opinions point to complex, mixed feelings about sentencing policy in the state.

The numbers come from the Marquette Law School Poll, which earlier this week released the results of its latest survey of Wisconsin voters regarding politics and public policy.  This edition of the poll included a rich array of questions relating to truth in sentencing.  (Full disclosure: I collaborated in the design of these questions with Poll Director Charles Franklin and Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department.)

The poll results this year were remarkably consistent with results from a year ago, when some of the same questions were posed.  Last July, 63% supported truth in sentencing, while 55% supported release opportunities at the half-way mark.  An even more decisive two-thirds majority supported awarding credits toward early release to recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments, which also violates truth in sentencing (at least in the particularly hard-line way in which it was adopted in Wisconsin).

What gives?   Read more »

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Bounty Hunters at the Gates: Wisconsin’s Flirtation with the Bail Bonds System

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Surely you’ve noticed when flipping through TV channels the reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter on A&E. The show centers upon Duane “Dog” Chapman—a bearded, tattooed, and bemulleted bounty hunter—as he and his family of fellow bail enforcement agents apprehend fugitives in sunny Hawaii. Chapman has gotten a fair amount of publicity outside of his show, including a Paula Deen-esque racial slur controversy (unlike Deen, he had no merchandising empire to lose) that resulted in the temporary cancellation of his show, and for being arrested and briefly imprisoned in Mexico for illegally capturing celebrity fugitive Andrew Luster.

Like most reality shows, Dog the Bounty Hunter follows a set format. It begins with a briefing, where we are introduced to the fugitive’s criminal history. Next comes an investigation, which generally involves phone calls and visits to former neighbors and family members. Each episode’s climax is generally the discovery and capture of the bail jumper. The show then shifts from action to tear-jerking drama, with Dog and family providing homespun advice to the re-apprehended fugitive about taking responsibility for life, finding a job, and quitting drugs. “Smoke brah?” counselor-mode Dog asks, slipping a cigarette into the handcuffed man’s mouth and lighting it for him. Typically, the fugitive’s family is present to provide tearful commentary on exactly where things went wrong. Dog the Bounty Hunter is sleazy, shamelessly tacky, and unquestionably entertaining.

Fast forward to Wisconsin, the summer of 2013. Read more »

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