Doing Better Than “Nailing and Jailing” in the Fight Against Violence

As Milwaukee County Children’s Court Judge Joe Donald put it, “We do a very good job of trailing, nailing, and jailing.” But can Milwaukee do more when it comes to dealing with crime so that it can be prevented and the lives of those on the path to committing crimes turn out better?

The good news, participants in an “On the Issues” discussion Monday at Eckstein Hall generally agreed, is that the large majority of young people in the community are not involved in crime, that there are existing constructive programs involving thousands of youths , and those who went on highly-publicized sprees in the Riverwest neighborhood on July 3 and in and around the State Fair grounds on Aug. 4 are not typical.

The bad news is that it doesn’t take very many crimes to cause great harm, not only to the victims but to neighborhoods and the city as a whole, panel members agreed. Furthermore, criminals are getting younger and more violent, and the poverty which is so often the environment for criminals is getting broader and deeper in the city.  

The panel discussion, hosted by Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, before an audience of about 200, followed the showing Sunday night at the Milwaukee Film Festival of a documentary, “The Interrupters,” about efforts to reduce youth violence in Chicago.

“The violence is highly concentrated, but its results affect everybody,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. He said small percentages of repeat offenders and domestic abusers are responsible for a large portion of police calls in the city. He said progress has been made in fighting crime in Milwaukee and progress can be made through “consistent and persistent interventions” by police, working with the community.

The overall link between crime and poverty may be a complicated matter, but Flynn said it is pretty simple to describe in specific communities: “At the neighborhood level, crime causes poverty,” he said. “It destroys neighborhood capacity.” People leave, employers leave, and jobs leave when people don’t think they are safe.

Ron Johnson, who has been a leader in restorative justice efforts in Milwaukee, said, “It’s not all doom and gloom.” He described programs, such as one he was involved in last year at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High School, that helped reduce crime and gang problems, at least for the period while the program was being pursued actively. He said about 80% of youths who are brought into juvenile court don’t come back again. “The majority of our kids are resilient,” Johnson said. “There are so many positive stories about kids in our community that never get out.”

Barbara Notestein, executive director of Safe and Sound, said her organization works with 18,000 young people per year in the city and has had success in building social fabric many times. She said the group’s efforts focus on building the strength of communities, developing positive lifestyles among youth, and building collaboration between law enforcement and the community.

But such efforts clearly are not enough, given the impact violence is having on many neighborhoods. Judge Donald called for improved approaches to law enforcement to respond effectively – but differently —  to criminals who are dangerous and those who he labeled “annoying.”  Donald said, “We are spending an inordinate amount of money on just sequestration. “

Pedro Hernandez, a student at Marquette Law School who works with young people at the United Community Center on the south side, said he tries to understanding among those he is involved with that they have a future and that they should value their education. He said he comes from the same kind of background as many who have gotten into trouble. He said youths need to be listened to and more needs to be done to show them how to deal with the things that hurt them.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was among those in the audience and at the end of the discussion was asked his thoughts. Barrett praised the efforts of people such as Johnson, Notestein, and Hernandez as examples of what can be accomplished by those who regard all the city’s young people as “our children.”

But, he said, “I honestly don’t know whether the region considers them ‘our’ children.”   

He said 46% of Milwaukee children are growing up in poverty and, he asked, “What is the future we’re sending to them? . . . We have to find a way so young people in our community have hope in their lives.”

The 75-minute sessions can be viewed here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.