2009/12/23Community Justice Resource Center wins place in Milwaukee budget

Kit Murphy McNally, pictured, executive director of the Benedict Center, a WNPJ member group, writes of the ongoing struggle to maintain a Milwaukee program offering alternatives to incarceration:

The ten-year old Community Justice Resource Center (CJRC) scraped through to victory in the 2010 Milwaukee County budget debate with the odds heavily against this highly successful day reporting alternative to jail in Milwaukee.

With a budget of nearly $1 million and lack of support from the Sheriff, in whose budget it rests, the CJRC was knocked out of the County Executive’s no tax increase budget early this Fall. Strenuous advocacy from the Benedict Center, justice leaders and the community led Supervisors to adopt an amendment by a 15-4 vote to restore funding, only to have the amendment fall under the County Executive’s veto pen.

In a tense budget debate with insufficient revenue for many essential needs, the Board ultimately voted 14-5 to override the veto and save the CJRC . . . for now. Supervisors who stood strongly with County Executive Scott Walker and Sheriff David Clarke in opposition to the CJRC were Mark Borkowski, Paul Cesarz, Joseph Rice and Joe Sanfelippo. Supervisor Lynne DeBruin joined the four in opposing the budget override.

What did they vote against? A day reporting alternative to incarceration with a success rate better than 85% one year after completion at 1/5 the cost of a day at the Correctional Facility South (House of Correction) or 1/10 the cost of a day at the Correctional Facility Central (Jail).

Participants now go home on electronic monitoring, learning to cope with the forces that drew them into criminal behavior, and they participate in Restorative Community Service to give back to neighborhoods damaged by crime. Wilbert Saint Jullien coordinates the community service component at the CJRC for the Benedict Center.

It was a county-wide justice advocacy coalition brought together by the Benedict Center that originally researched, organized and advocated for the day reporting center – against great odds --- in the mid nineties.

How odd it is that forces in Milwaukee so strongly resist change that has proven, elsewhere and right here, to be cost effective and safer than imprisonment in the long run for lower level offenders. The fight for justice was different this year, though. This year justice leaders and the new Milwaukee County Community Justice Council, which includes the Benedict Center, led the charge to save the CJRC, which was removed from the Sheriff’s budget by the County Executive at the Sheriff’s request, according to a statement from Walker.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers, District Attorney John Chisholm, Public Defender Tom Reed and the Benedict Center Executive Director met repeatedly during the budget process with representatives from the County Board, Sheriff’s Office and Public Policy Institute to craft a strategy that would improve operations at the CJRC, reduce costs and increase opportunities for lesser offenders to go home on electronic monitoring and report daily to the CJRC for drug treatment, education, cognitive programming, community service and job preparation. The model is very similar to the Benedict Center’s gender specific program, but provides greater security with deputies on site.

While the battle is won initially, the war goes on. The Sheriff is a constitutionally elected official and is not obligated to support the CJRC. The Judiciary and District Attorney have agreed to some operational changes sought by the Sheriff, but the Board patched together funding by proposing the Sheriff keep one dorm at the South facility closed all year. In the past dorms have been closed to save about $425,000 each annually. The Sheriff does not support this plan. In the end the Sheriff must answer only to the voters.

If our community does not value and speak up for restorative opportunities for individuals who are in conflict with the law, we will ultimately channel nearly all of our scarce tax dollars into jail and prison cells. And in that oppressive society, we will be no safer. --Kit Murphy McNally