Restorative Justice Circles in Racine Correctional Institution

This blog post is coauthored by Professors Judith G. McMullen and Mary E. Triggiano.

Andrew Center LogoEarly last month, a group from Marquette University Law School began a restorative justice (RJ) circle event at Racine Correctional Institution. One of us (Professor Mary Triggiano, Director of the Andrew Center for Restorative Justice and former Chief Judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court) guided the other (Professor Judith McMullen), six law students, eight community members, and 18 incarcerated men through a series of RJ circles over the course of three days. We believe that our community may be interested in this brief account of the experience.

RJ brings people who have harmed others together with people who have been harmed and with community members to promote understanding and healing. RJ practices borrow heavily from methods used by indigenous peoples to solve disputes, mend social relationships, and promote healing. The essence of RJ is “the circle,” where participants sit, whether in chairs or on the floor, in a circle, the facilitator asks a question, and a talking piece is then passed from person to person. Only the person holding the talking piece can speak; no one is allowed to interrupt, and all are asked to practice deep listening and to share stories with an open heart.

A foundational idea of RJ is that when someone commits a harm, there is a ripple effect such that not only the victim of the crime is hurt but so, too, are people in that person’s family and broader community—hence the need in appropriate instances to bring together into the circle survivors of crime, family members, community members, and those who have harmed. RJ challenges participants to see each other’s points of view or experiences, to take ownership of acts they have committed, and to have empathy for each other’s suffering. A tall order, indeed.

On the first day of circles at Racine Correctional Institution, incarcerated men, survivors of violent crimes, and community members took part in various circles, answering queries posed by Triggiano, and listening to each other. This sharing of experience leads circle participants to see each other as fellow human beings with a number of similar needs, fears, and hopes. At one point, the circle was divided into groups to discuss the ripple effect of a hypothetical armed robbery of a mom-and-pop grocery store during which the store owner falls and breaks his hip. Group members quickly identified the harmful effects not only on the unfortunate grocer but also on his family, his employees, his customers, the neighborhood, the first responders, the families of the robbers, and even the robbers themselves. Later, participants would begin to identify the ripple effects of harm they themselves had committed or harms they themselves had suffered.

The second day of the circle centered on the incredibly painful stories of three courageous individuals who had survived violent crimes. Each survivor spoke at length about their life, experiences before, during, and “after” being harmed, and the toll the harm took on them and on their family. Then, each participant in the circle spoke about their reaction to the stories. The near-term impact of these shared stories on the circle participants was almost breathtaking.

Day three focused on healing harms to self and others. As the talking piece was passed around and circle members described the impact of hearing the experiences of survivors, several participants acknowledged that they had not considered the ripple effects of things they had done in the past, but hearing from people who had been harmed by similar crimes stopped them in their tracks and allowed them to own up to what they had done. Listening to the survivors led the men to remember some wrongs that they themselves had experienced and the painful feelings associated with those events. Community participants and survivors came to realize that many of the incarcerated men had themselves survived violent crimes of all sorts. Day three also included a skit designed to lead participants to identify and describe the positive effects of RJ. We divided into five groups, and acted out a skit where several people would try to convince a drug dealer to participate in an RJ circle. Speaking as someone who played the role of drug dealer, Professor McMullen can state from experience that the exercise not only summarized the RJ process and effects but also made everyone walk in someone else’s shoes and look at the world from another perspective.

We were, as one community participant put it, planting seeds of compassion, empathy, understanding, and healing. But we also were able to see tiny sprouts emerge from some of the seeds in the RJ circles. The Law School’s Andrew Center for Restorative Justice is poised to facilitate more circles at Racine Correctional Institution in the future to nurture those sprouts and plant more seeds of hope.

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Public Service and Pro Bono Kudos

Marquette Law SchoolLast year I had occasion to do a series of seven blog posts surveying some of the great work of our community, led by our Office of Public Service, in the realm of pro bono service. Without doubting that that number could be multiplied, here, by contrast, I will combine into one post a number of recent pro bono “happenings” that should be celebrated:

  1. The Mobile Legal Clinic marked a decade of service this fall. Since its launch in 2013, 385 volunteer lawyers and law students have participated in the mobile model of service delivery. During this time, the Mobile Legal Clinic, a project of Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Bar Association, has visited 54 host sites in 655 sessions and served 4,829 people. The tenth anniversary was celebrated on October 24 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. A number of those involved in envisioning and making possible the Mobile Legal Clinic—Frank Daily, Julie Ebert, Mike Gonring, and Angela Schultz—were recognized at the gathering.

  2. Tara Kniep, a third-year student, was named as the Milwaukee Bar Association’s Pro Bono Law Student of the Year at the MBA’s State of the Court luncheon at the Wisconsin Club on October 11. The award recognizes her exceptional dedication to pro bono service and her remarkable work to technologically transform the client experience at the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics. In addition to schoolwork and a job, Tara made it her mission to serve her community through her pro bono efforts. To date, she has contributed over 170 pro bono hours to the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics. The processes that Tara has introduced have improved operational efficiency at both in-person and remote clinics, saving time for clients and volunteers alike.

  3. The Pro Bono & Access to Justice Section of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) has released its second annual Pro Bono Honor Roll. This initiative invites law school deans to denominate a faculty member, a staff member, and a student for their outstanding contributions to pro bono legal services. This year, it was a privilege to honor Michael O’Hear, professor of law; Katie Mertz, director of pro bono and public service; and Heidi Maier, a third-year law student, for their significant roles at the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics over the past year. Professor Michael O’Hear, known nationally for his expertise in criminal law, has expanded his reach, in order to address common issues faced by family law litigants visiting the MVLCs. He holds a regular shift at the Milwaukee Justice Center and is a dedicated and valuable volunteer.

    Katie Mertz has demonstrated innovation in her administrative position by reviving estate planning clinics, creating a housing-referral tool for individuals dealing with eviction and other housing-related legal matters, and engaging students in the Wills for Heroes project in collaboration with Foley & Lardner, among other activities.

    Heidi Maier, in the midst of her studies, has contributed more than 230 pro bono hours, displaying remarkable dedication by consistently assisting at the United Community Center with a weekly shift throughout the summer, while managing a job in Brookfield, and this fall she has made a weekly commitment at the House of Peace. She is also an invaluable member of the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics’ student advisory board, adding value as a member of the leadership team.

Kudos and great thanks to all who seek to “Be The Difference” through their pro bono and public service work at Marquette University Law School.

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Disapproval, discontent, and uncertainty: Marquette expert observers describe 2024 election dynamics

On the one hand, “a year is forever in politics,” so don’t panic about where you think the party and candidates you favor are standing this far from the November 2024 national election.

On the other hand, there is a strong prospect of an unprecedented presidential election between Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump in a time of great discontent around politics, and standard understandings of political dynamics may not apply.

And some of the things going on politics – such as former Trump Cabinet members becoming opponents and critics of Trump – are not easy to explain.

So the outlook for the 2024 election for president is complex, fascinating, and uncertain, in the view of three nationally respected political observers, each with ties to Marquette University, who took part in an “On the Issues” program Nov. 29, 2023, in the Lubar Center of Marquette Law School.

The three statements at the start of this blog post summarize thoughts from, respectively, Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll; Craig Gilbert, a fellow at the Marquette Law School Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education; and Marquette Professor Julia Azari, a political scientist who is quoted frequently in national discussions on politics.   

“A Trump-Biden matchup would be so unprecedented,” said Gilbert, formerly the Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. An incumbent president against a former president is not the only reason for saying that. The ages of the candidates, especially widely held perceptions of Biden being too old, and the large negative ratings of both candidates are also factors.

“We live in an era of chronic disapproval and discontent,” Gilbert said. “Everybody ‘s unpopular and everybody’s unhappy. Who’s happy?”

Franklin said a good reason to pay attention to poll results at this point – and the Marquette Law School Poll released both national and Wisconsin results recently – is not to predict how elections a year from now will turn out. It is to see how races are shaping up and, in the long run, to be able to understand more about the course that leads to final outcomes.

The race for the Republican nomination is dominated now by Trump, Franklin said, but Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations while Trump was president, does better than Trump in head-to-head match-ups against Biden. Franklin said Republican voters are split, with about 70% having favorable opinions of Trump and 30% having unfavorable opinions. Even if Haley looks strong against Biden, overcoming Trump within the Republican race will be a big challenge for her. “You’ve got to get the nomination to become the nominee,” Franklin said.

Azari said that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was positioning himself as “Trump-plus” and Haley as “Trump-light” in appealing to voters, while former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was running as the anti-Trump. Support for DeSantis has been slipping, Christie is not gaining momentum, and Haley has become the alternative to Trump getting the most attention among Republicans.

Gilbert said about 20% of voters are “double haters,” with negative opinions of both Trump and Biden. They could become important in shaping the race, as could voters who have a somewhat negative opinion of Biden but who might vote for him in a match against Trump.

Looking to Wisconsin, Gilbert said voting patterns in the state have changed significantly in the past couple decades. The “WOW counties” — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties, adjacent to Milwaukee County – were long-time Republican bastions, but Republican margins have grown smaller in recent elections. Some rural parts of Wisconsin used to be more “purple,” with Democrats sometimes doing well, but have become increasingly “red” and supportive of Trump. And Dane County, including Madison, has continued to gain population and increase in its power as a  Democratic bastion. “It’s a different map” than it was 20 or 20 years ago when it comes to analyzing Wisconsin voting, he said.

Azari said Trump continues to appeal to “low-propensity voters” who are less likely to vote usually but are more likely to turn out for Trump. Many of them are in more rural parts of Wisconsin.

Franklin said that how much Trump voters will mobilize in 2024 is likely to be an important part of determining the election outcome.

Derek Mosley, director of the Lubar Center and moderator of the program, asked the three what had made Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, such a strong candidate for re-election in Wisconsin in 2024. Azari said Baldwin “has avoided becoming a national lightening rod” for conservatives. Gilbert said that in her Senate victories in 2012 and 2018, Baldwin did better in Republican-oriented parts of the state than other Democrats. Losing some areas by smaller than expected margins should not be underestimated as a valuable part of winning Wisconsin as a whole, he said. And Franklin said that, even though no major Republican candidate for Senate has joined the race so far, it is not too late for that to happen and the Wisconsin race could still heat up.   

The conversation may be viewed by clicking below.

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